June 20, 2024

Wisconsin Assembly to consider slate of K-12 bills Tuesday | Local Education

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The Wisconsin State Assembly will consider a slate of education-related bills in its Sept. 28 session.

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Tuesday’s state Assembly session is full of education-related proposals.

Six bills focused on K-12 education, all supported mostly by Republicans at the committee level, will be discussed and voted on. Here is a rundown of what’s in those bills and how they got here.

Anti-racism and anti-sexism instruction

The introduction of the “critical race theory” bill, AB411, in June followed a series of similar bills proposed or passed by Republicans in state legislatures nationwide.

Across the country, conservatives have pushed against teaching about certain aspects of race and gender in classrooms and used the term “critical race theory” as a catch-all.

CRT is a graduate school framework from the 1970s that argues historical racist acts like slavery and segregation still play a role in modern institutions and help explain racial disparities in society. Scholars in the field and many teachers have said CRT is not taught in K-12 classrooms.

“I talk to hundreds of school districts and probably never bring up the term, ‘critical race theory,’” University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus Gloria Ladson-Billings said in June. “It is a red herring, I will say that over and over again. It has almost nothing to do with what actually is happening in schools.”

The bill would specifically ban teaching the following:

  • One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.
  • An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  • An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex.
  • Individuals of one race or sex are not able to and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex.
  • An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex.
  • An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex.
  • Systems based on meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or are created by individuals of a particular race to oppress individuals of another race.

The list is similar to those in bills in other states, including some of the same exact wording. Teachers in states where legislation was approved this summer shared concerns it would limit in-depth discussions with students about complex topics like race.

At the press conference announcing the bill, sponsors maintained that local school boards would still have control over curriculum and that controversial issues can still be taught, but repeatedly said CRT would be banned.

“Controversial topics are welcome. Our schools, and higher education institutions, are places that should cultivate diversity of thought,” said Rep. Gae Magnafici, R-Dresser. “Curriculum that is divisive has no place.”

The bill would allow parents to file complaints over what’s being taught in a classroom in circuit court. If a district was found in violation of the law, the state superintendent could withhold 10% of the district’s state aid until the issue was remedied.

Cursive writing

Introduced at the beginning of July, AB435 would require the state superintendent of public instruction to include cursive writing into the English Language Arts model academic standards.

All schools, including independent charters and private schools participating in a parental choice program, would be required to include cursive writing in its elementary curriculum. In written testimony at the Sept. 15 public hearing on the bill, sponsor Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt said, “the state of education in Wisconsin is not good,” noting low proficiency rates in reading and math and the worst racial gap in test scores in the country.

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“While education has many goals, I would contend that one of the most important goals of education is to maximize the potential of our minds,” Thiesfeldt said. “Teaching kids how to think happens by activating and creating neurological pathways connecting the different parts of our brains. Cursive writing actually trains the brain to integrate visual and tactile information and fine motor dexterity.”

Both the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the School Administrators Alliance, which represent school boards and superintendents across the state, opposed the bill. SAA executive director John Forester wrote that many superintendents “believe there is value in teaching cursive,” but the challenge is “limited available instructional time.”

“It’s also critically important to consider what’s most relevant for students in this digital age,” Forester wrote. “Communication and writing take place more commonly now with computers and other electronic devices. Districts also needed to strengthen student proficiency in keyboarding to take online state assessments.”

Curriculum transparency

Introduced at the beginning of August, AB488 sets a list of required teaching and learning materials that school districts must post on their website and make available to parents.

An amendment that passed in the Committee on Education would make teachers’ lesson plans exempt from the requirement, but the bill would still require districts to post syllabi, outlines and handouts created by a district or teacher. Any posting of curricular materials would need to include bibliographic information identifying specific materials.

The list of learning materials would need to be updated twice each school year, and districts would have to notify parents when the update occurred.

Any school district resident would be allowed to file a claim that a school district is noncompliant under the bill and if they prevailed in court, the court would award the resident reasonable attorney fees up to $15,000.

[Republican proposal would require school districts to post curriculum lists online]

A fiscal estimate from the Department of Public Instruction stated the “bill would impose a significant administrative burden on school districts in order to be in compliance with the posting, updating and notification” requirements, noting that there is no extra funding included in the bill.

Supporters of the bill say it’s an important way to allow parents to know what their children are learning at school.

Civics instruction

AB563 was introduced less than two weeks ago on Sept. 15 with a public hearing held the following day, garnering criticism from state superintendent Jill Underly in her State of Education address Thursday.

The bill would require DPI to develop a model curriculum that helps students develop the following:

  • An understanding of pupils’ shared rights and responsibilities as residents of this state and the United States and of the founding principles of the United States.
  • A sense of civic pride and desire to participate regularly with government at the local, state and federal levels.
  • An understanding of the process for effectively advocating before governmental bodies and officials.
  • An understanding of the civic-minded expectations of an upright and desirable citizenry that recognizes and accepts responsibility for preserving and defending the benefits of liberty inherited from previous generations and secured by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Knowledge of other nations’ governing philosophies, including communism, socialism and totalitarianism, and an understanding of how those philosophies compare with the philosophy and principles of freedom and representative democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, wrote in support of the bill in testimony to the Committee on Education that the country is “facing a civics education crisis.”

“We live in the greatest nation in the world and experience freedoms that many people in countries around the world never have the opportunity to experience,” Vos wrote. “We cannot take this for granted. We need to do a better job of informing our citizens of the vital role we all play in our government. We must fight against civic ignorance.”

Wisconsin Association of School Boards registered in support of the bill, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, writing that it believes “nearly all school districts are already providing Civics Education.”

“We would hope that those districts would be able to continue using their existing curriculum and that this bill would cause minimal disruption,” it wrote.

Credit recovery courses

AB561 would require school districts to annually report to the state the number of students who attend a credit recovery course during the school year, the student’s grade level and the subject of the recovery course.

DPI would then have to submit that information to legislative committees.

[GOP bills would restrict teaching of race, bias in schools]

Credit recovery courses allow students to retake a course or make up credit for a course they did not pass previously but need for high school graduation. Rep. Cindi Duchow wrote that the requirement would “give both the Department of Public Instruction and the State Legislature a more complete view of how Wisconsin’s students are performing.”

Financial information

A bill focused on financial transparency for school districts has the support of DPI and received votes in favor from some Democrats when it passed through the Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight.

AB378 requires DPI to create a single web page where school district financial data is more easily accessible. In its testimony in support of most of the bill, DPI wrote that it is “already well down the road to increased transparency for Wisconsin school finance.”

“AB 378 has the potential to improve understanding of this complex topic, but it will require a sustained commitment by the advisory committee, the Legislature, and DPI to make that happen,” DPI wrote.

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