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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Bills Reacting To Critical Race Theory Debate Under Consideration In Wisconsin

 Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego)
WisconsinEye
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Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) introduced a bill that seeks to restrict race and sex stereotyping in classroom instruction. The bill is part of a national push by conservative lawmakers to restrict the teaching of so-called critical race theory, which has become a catch-all term.

Wisconsin’s Republican-led Senate and Assembly education committees held a seven-hour joint hearing Wednesday on two bills related to the national debate over so-called critical race theory.

Critical race theory explores the idea that racism is woven into the fabric of U.S. institutions. GOP lawmakers have used the concept as a catch-all term, as they’ve pushed back on schools that are prioritizing cultural responsiveness, equity and inclusion.

The first bill would prohibit race or sex stereotyping in public school instruction. Some of the concepts that would be banned are teaching that one race or sex is superior, or that a person of a certain race is responsible for historical acts committed by others of the same race.

The bill would withhold 10% of state aid from districts that violate the prohibitions.

Republican state Rep. Chuck Wichgers of Muskego introduced the bill. In making the case for why he thinks the measure is necessary, Wichgers said his mixed-race niece and nephew, who attend Madison schools, have been taught that white people are racist.

"And they are taught that their father is racist," Wichgers said. "And it makes them really uncomfortable. Does their father have recourse to say, 'I married a woman of color, I have children who are children of color, I don’t think I’m racist. You told my kids that white people are racist.'"

Democratic state Rep. LaKeisha Myers of Milwaukee spoke against the bill. She’s a former educator and questioned Wichgers’ argument.

"As an educator, never have I gone into a classroom of any of my students and said, 'Guess what Johnny, you’re white, you’re a racist. You should feel bad for your fifth-times great-grandfather owning people,'" Myers said. "That is not what we do as educators. And I dare you, if you find an educator — you should take them to the board of education if they said that to a student."

The second bill debated in committee Wednesday would require school districts to post their curriculum online for parents to easily access. Republican state Rep. Elijah Behnke of Oconto is a sponsor.

"Parents and guardians are often left in the dark to what is taught in public school classrooms," Behnke said. "When COVID hit last year, kids were stuck at home with virtual learning. This gave parents a peek into what was being taught in the classroom and they became very concerned. Many were seeing unapproved curriculum being taught to their children. It is one thing for our children to learn about controversial topics, it’s another for them to be indoctrinated with controversial topics."

Several parents testified in favor of the bills, saying they’ve been disturbed by what’s happening in their children’s schools. Alyssa Pollow, a parent in Germantown, said she was upset to learn that teachers in her district had trainings related to white privilege.

"Superintendents and directors of education have failed to provide appropriate oversight or notification of politically charged curriculum and teacher in-service training for our teachers," Pollow said. "We need transparency at our schools."

Several educators and faith leaders spoke against the bills, saying teachers need to be free to talk about racism, and the measures would have a chilling effect.

"To name just a few examples — slavery, genocide, Japanese internment during World War II — are realities of our shared history that shape the world today," said UW-Madison school of education professor Jeremy Stoddard. "And I know as a former history teacher, teaching history without talking about racism or stereotyping is impossible."

Throughout the seven-hour hearing, legislators and speakers frequently mentioned critical race theory, but it’s not explicitly included in the text of the bills.

If the bills are approved by the Republican-majority Legislature, they would then go to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who is unlikely to sign them. Evers’ press office did not return a request for comment by deadline.

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