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

Wisconsin Assembly passes bills to break up MPS, establish parent 'bill of rights'

Man speaking behind several microphones.
Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) was the main Assembly author of AB 966, which would break MPS into smaller districts.

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Assembly passed a number of education-related bills Tuesday, including legislation to break up Milwaukee Public Schools, expand school choice and allow parents to intervene in school decisions.

Parental rights were a major theme of the GOP-authored bills. Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) summed up his party’s goal.

"On the Republican side of the aisle, we believe strongly in the rights of parents," Vos said during Tuesday's floor session. "We believe parents are the ones who should have the primary decision-making."

Vos was speaking in support of a bill that would allow parents to opt out of school mask mandates. It would also require schools have an in-person learning option.

Another bill would establish a parental “bill of rights” that would require schools to disclose lesson plans to parents and allow them to opt-out of anything against their religious or personal beliefs. That’s just one of a list of parental “rights” the bill would establish and hold schools legally responsible for.

"If parents believe they are not being listened to by their schools and their governing bodies, then it's up to us as state legislators to step forward," said Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger), one of the bill's authors. "We need to back up parents and ensure they have a voice in the education of their children."

The parental bill of rights legislation alarmed the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance, which sought a formal legal opinion of its implications. The SAA says the bill would likely result in increased lawsuits against school districts, and its ambiguity makes it difficult to interpret.

Assembly Republicans also voted for a bill to break up MPS into between four and eight districts. Co-author Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) said smaller districts — including suburban districts that neighbor MPS — get better results.

"Saying that something smaller isn’t better — how will we ever know unless we do something bolder and actually follow through with this to see if we can provide a better opportunity for the children that reside there?" Wittke said.

Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) denounced the bill, saying it would increase school segregation in an already segregated region.

"It’s nothing but another attack on public education, trying to get your little fingers in there, trying to destroy public education so you can open it wide up — open it wide open to voucher schools," Sinicki said.

The Assembly did advance legislation to expand school vouchers by eliminating income limits on the programs, which provide publicly-funded tuition for private schools.

According to a fiscal estimate from the Department of Public Instruction, lifting the income cap on private school vouchers could increase taxes by as much as $577 million in the 2022-23 school year.

Assembly Democrats pointed out that this week is National Public Schools Week, and they saw the Republican legislation as an attack on those institutions.

"I’m really tired of the relentless attacks on public education that I’ve heard today," said Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie). Public schools are the cornerstones of our state and our communities.

Democrats like Hebl attempted to amend some of the bills to increase school funding, which they see as the real solution to improve outcomes for kids. Those amendments failed.

If the Republican education bills passed by the Assembly also make it through the Senate, they are likely to be dead on arrival with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

But a gubernatorial election is coming up this fall, raising the possibility of Republican control of Wisconsin’s Legislature and executive branch in 2023.

Editor’s note: A portion of the audio is from WisconsinEye.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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