Sponsors say discussions of institutional racism and implicit bias will make white people feel bad.
Ron “Duff” Martin, Wisconsin Education Association Council president, remembers hearing stories about his great-grandparents, who were Chippewa Indians living near Barnes, in Bayfield County.
“[My great-grandfather] sold eggs to the little country store in the Barnes, and he was not allowed to enter through the front door,” Martin said. “Not because it was service delivery, [but] because Indians weren’t allowed to enter the front door and had to enter the back door.”
That story, in Martin’s eyes, shows the need to teach all facets of history—whether the good parts or the bad—in school history classes. But he and other advocates worry that proposed bills, whose Republican authors claim will ban so-called critical race theory from schools, will prevent kids from learning all sides of history.
“This bill would prohibit me from telling that story to my students. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my history,” Martin said. “Honest education can’t leave out race and racism.”
Republican authors of the bills discussed at a joint Senate and Assembly committee hearing say their goal is to “prohibit race or sex stereotyping” in school curricula and school trainings and require schools to provide information on curriculum. But a key caveat in one bill states that it bars instruction “that 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,” essentially telling teachers to avoid topics around historic or present racism or sexism for the sake of making sure white or male children aren’t uncomfortable.
Wednesday’s hearing was just the latest volley in the culture war that has conservatives making the claim that teaching about racism is racist itself. The hearing included appearances from conservative pundits like former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who compared critical race theory—a graduate school discussion topic that is not mentioned in the bill nor taught at the K-12 level—to giving children hallucinogenic drugs.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Madison) attempted to ask someone in support of the bill whether they acknowledged that Wisconsin has some of the worst disparities for Black people, making it one of worst places to raise a Black child. She was cut off by committee chairs.
It is not known if there will be a vote on the bills in the aftermath of the public hearing. Even if they pass in committee and on the Assembly and Senate floors, it is highly likely they will be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. But Martin said just by holding these hearings, legislators continue breeding mistrust between parents and educators.
“This is another example of legislators putting a wedge or trying to divide our nation, and that’s also very disturbing to me,” Martin said. “Good educators know we can’t just avoid or lie our way through the challenges that our nation has experienced. And we find age-appropriate ways to tell hard truths about our country’s past and present in order to prepare our students for the future.”
Johnson pointed out to Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego), who wrote the Assembly version of one bill, that entire school districts could lose funding due to the supposed error of one teacher.
Martin also argued that it’s a sign of misplaced priorities. Republican legislators failed to support schools during the coronavirus pandemic and even undermined precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of a deadly virus. They also, despite a $4.4 billion budget surplus, failed to significantly increase school funding, even as superintendents said they would have to lay off staff due to shortages.
“They don’t even know how to write a lesson plan, let alone determine what’s age appropriate, [and they’re] trying to dictate what we can and can’t do in the classroom,” Martin said. “It’s like, do your work. Why are you doing all this other stuff?”
During the spring session, the Legislature did manage to pass a bill that requires Wisconsin schools to teach the Holocaust. Gov. Tony Evers signed the bill, but Martin questioned how a teacher could teach the Holocaust without being accused of violating the bills discussed on Wednesday. The dissonance also sends a message about which histories teachers are allowed to be critical of, Martin said.
“So it’s okay for us to say, ‘Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, they were bad and they did all these horrible things,’ but we can’t even talk about that in our own American history?” Martin said. “Now there’s something wrong with that. Something very wrong with that.”
Peter Bakken from the Wisconsin Council of Churches posited the rhetorical question of whether someone can feel pride for what the US has accomplished without also feeling some personal responsibility and shame for the ways it has fallen short.
“I don’t think you can have one without the other,” he said.