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Critical race theory debate heats up in legislative hearing
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LEGISLATURE | CRITICAL RACE THEORY

Critical race theory debate heats up in legislative hearing

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An eight-hour hearing at the state Capitol Wednesday on bills seeking to put certain limits on discussions of racism and sexism in public schools sparked strong feelings on both sides of the issue.

The bills, introduced by legislative Republicans in June, would bar public schools, universities and technical colleges from teaching students and training employees about concepts such as systemic racism and implicit bias.

Sen. André Jacque, R-Beaver Dam, one of the bills’ authors, said the legislation is meant to stop a “false narrative” that “promotes racist indoctrination” and was introduced at the request of parents in his district and around the state.

The bills are circulating amid a nationwide push to ban the teaching of critical race theory, which argues that racism is an inherent feature of the nation’s social structures and policies. The phrase “critical race theory” is not present in any of the bills, but it was invoked many times by multiple speakers during the hearing.

Developed in the 1970s, the academic concept has made headlines in recent months as Republicans across the country seek to ban schools from teaching what they consider to be divisive concepts about race and sex. At least 16 states have considered such bills or have signed them into law.

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, ranking Democratic member of the Senate Education Committee, challenged the co-authors to say how many districts in the state were actually teaching critical race theory. Rep. Chuck Wichgers, R-Muskego, another of the bills’ authors, was unable to provide a specific answer but alluded to a petition he said some teachers had signed that outlined their efforts to teach the theory. He did not produce the petition.

Later in the hearing, Larson was able to track down the petition and noted that the phrase “critical race theory” does not appear on the document.

According to the bills’ authors, the legislation is meant to provide parents with greater ability to know what their students are being taught.

Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mount Horeb, pointed out that districts are already required to provide curriculum to parents who request it. But Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, another co-author of the bills, said parents who have made requests for curriculum under the state’s open records law are often met with high fees and delays.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, took issue with how one of the bills would assess financial penalties against an entire school district for the actions of one teacher. She also noted the passage of the legislation could lead to “under-teaching” students about racial issues.

Transparency sought

The legislation would require teachers to post their syllabuses online and districts to provide copies of curriculum under the state’s open records law, without charges or delays, and would establish a complaint process for parents, staff or groups who object to the materials being taught.

If the state determines a teacher or district has violated the prohibition on what may be taught, that district could lose 10% of its annual state funding. Public school district parents would also be able to launch legal action against their children’s school district should they believe it to be in violation of the law.

Under the bills, violations include teaching that one race or sex is superior to another; a person is inherently racist by virtue of his or her race or sex; a person’s moral character is determined by race or sex; a person should feel guilty for past acts committed by people of his or her race or sex; and systems based on meritocracy are racist or sexist or designed to oppress people of another race.

Although it’s unclear if the bills have enough support to pass the Republican-led Legislature, they would almost certainly be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools superintendent.

A Marquette Law School Poll released Wednesday found 26% of respondents favor teaching critical race theory in public schools, 30% oppose it and 41% didn’t know enough to form an opinion.

Raised voices

Roughly 60 people registered to testify on the legislation Wednesday, and the lengthy hearing at times devolved into raised voices from constituents as well as lawmakers.

Libby Sobic, from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and Elisabeth Lambert, a fellow with the liberal ACLU of Wisconsin, and members of the Legislature testified, as did parents, educators and community leaders.

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who is Black and has become an outspoken conservative commentator, said the laws don’t provide enough transparency for parents. He called on the legislators to require audio recordings of each lesson to be provided to families as well, to audible groans from the crowd. But some parents agreed with Clarke’s suggestion.

A number of parents in school districts across the state, from Germantown to Slinger, also expressed their support for the legislation. A number of educators and parents expressed their strong opposition to the bills as well, at times calling the legislation racist.

A number of practicing teachers provided testimony toward the end of the hearing and said the legislation would have a detrimental effect on their ability to facilitate open discussions within their classrooms.

Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, a member of the Assembly Education Committee who provided testimony, said if the bills pass as they are, every public school district should prepare to go bankrupt due to the punitive financial measures attached to the legislation.

Ruben Anthony, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, lodged his opposition to the bills as well. The bills would prohibit addressing the truth of U.S. history and would be intellectually dishonest, he said, and management of curriculum should be left up to local school boards.

“I believe that it’s a huge mistake to censor school curriculum,” he said.


School Spotlight: Adventures in learning, inside and outside the classroom

Each Monday, the Wisconsin State Journal features a story about learning in Wisconsin. You can find all the School Spotlight stories from 2021 here. 

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