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

Wisconsin GOP lawmakers advance K-12 bills, including some aimed at classroom 'indoctrination'

Speaker Robin Vos held a press conference before the Wisconsin Assembly floor session Sept. 28.
Speaker Robin Vos held a press conference before the Wisconsin Assembly floor session Sept. 28.

A slate of Republican-authored education bills is advancing through Wisconsin’s Legislature, including one that would restrict how racism is taught in classrooms.

There are a number of other bills that add mandates for teachers or push for more transparency from schools.

If and when these bills pass through the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate, they go to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — who can veto them.

Here's a rundown of some of the bills.

SB 463: Making school curriculum publicly available

One of the themes in Republican K-12 bills this session is preventing alleged “indoctrination” of students by either prohibiting teachers from teaching certain things or requiring schools to be more transparent about what they’re teaching.

SB 463 requires public schools to post the materials they’re using in classrooms on the home page of their websites. It also allows school district residents to take legal action against schools if they’re not complying with this rule.

Rep. Elijah Behnke, a Republican from Oconto who authored the bill, explained the reasoning during the floor debate on Sept. 28.

"The one good thing that came out of COVID-19 is it allowed parents to get a sneak peek into the classrooms and see what was being taught," Behnke said. "However, in far too many cases, this showed us the true indoctrination of our children. There’s a difference between teaching our children about controversial topics and forcing ideological viewpoints."

The bill was passed along party lines by both the Senate and Assembly last week, and is now headed to the governor. Because it is opposed by Democrats and school districts, Evers is unlikely to sign it.

AB 411: Restrictions on anti-racism and anti-sexism instruction in schools

The indoctrination theme continues in this bill aimed at critical race theory.

The bill does not include the term "critical race theory" in its text, but it is part of a conservative movement that uses CRT as a catch-all term against anti-racism efforts in schools. It's fueled by parents and politicians who are concerned that schools are going too far with diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Speaker Robin Vos said in a press conference last week that the bill is about preventing teachers from stereotyping people based on their race or sex.

"We should be a colorblind society that judges everybody based on the content of their character — as someone much more eloquent than me said —than on the color of their skin," said Vos.

The author of AB 411, Rep. Chuck Wichgers of Muskego, wrote an addendum with dozens of terms that he said may be prohibited or restricted from the classroom if the bill were to pass. The terms include: social emotional learning, cultural awareness, cultural competence, equity, intersectionality, patriarchy, social justice and white privilege.

Democrats are fiercely opposed to this bill. They’re worried about it having a chilling effect on teachers, who they say need to be able to have honest conversations about racism both in historical contexts and in the present day.

"AB 411 and bills like it are a poor attempt at reverse psychology to sow seed of division and hate by playing on fears of a shrinking white majority," said Milwaukee Rep. LaKeshia Myers at a press conference prior to Assembly Republicans passing the bill in a floor vote.

AB 562: Notifying parents of lessons related to gender identify, sexual orientation

AB 562 hasn’t made it to a floor vote yet, but it also speaks to the fear over progressive indoctrination in schools. It would allow parents to opt their students out of lessons related to sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression.

>>Students Could Opt Out Of Lessons Related To Gender, Sexual Orientation Under GOP Bill

Evers' office has said he would veto this bill.

SB 373: Making school district financial information publicly available

This bill would require the Department of Public Instruction to create a school district financial information portal that would allow taxpayers easier access to school spending information. SB 373 passed both the Senate and Assembly last week and is headed to the governor's desk. It did get a couple votes from Democrats.

AB 561: Requiring schools to report the number of students in credit recovery courses

Like SB 373 and SB 463, authors say this bill is about increasing public school transparency and accountability. It would require schools to publicly report the number of students who take a credit recovery course.

Bills requiring cursive, civics instruction

AB 435 would require all publicly-funded schools to include cursive writing instruction in elementary curriculum.

AB 563 would require students receive at least one half-credit of civics instruction to graduate high school.

Republicans also mulling reading instruction improvements

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to improve how schools teach kids to read. Brain science shows that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is effective, especially for kids with dyslexia. But that’s not how all schools teach kids to read.

In Wisconsin, reading achievement has stagnated. Only 36% of Wisconsin fourth graders are proficient readers according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Continuing work that started in 2019 with Wisconsin's first dyslexia-specific law, Republicans want to hold schools more accountable to teach kids to read.

>>Push To Rethink Reading Instruction Gains Momentum In Wisconsin

AB 446, which hasn't advanced yet beyond committee, would increase the number of times students are screened for reading difficulties. Schools would then need to come up with intervention plans for students who score poorly on the assessments, and they would need to notify parents.

The Senate Education Committee scheduled a public hearing on AB 446 this week, on Oct. 6.

New State Superintendent Jill Underly is planning her own review of reading issues. She announced during her State of Education address that she was forming a literacy task force "to help restore Wisconsin’s standing as a national leader on literacy." The details of that task force are still to be determined.

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Emily does education reporting as well as general news editing at WUWM.
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