While some parents are voting with teachers, school funding, and equity in mind, others are motivated by culture war issues that have exploded into the mainstream over the past year and a half.
When Nina Ferraro heads to the polls on Tuesday to vote in Wisconsin’s spring elections, she’ll do so with teachers on her mind.
As the daughter of a former special education teacher, a graduate of the Kenosha Unified School District, and now the parent of two children attending Kenosha public schools, Ferraro knows firsthand how difficult an educator’s job is and how critical a role they play in the lives of young kids. Ferraro’s oldest child, a fourth-grader, identifies as gender nonbinary, and the teachers at Kenosha Unified have been immensely supportive.
“One of the things that I think we appreciate the most about the public school that our kids go to now is that there’s a real sense of openness,” Ferraro said. “Our specific school that we go to has been amazing and supportive and wonderful.”
Ferraro also understands how much strain educators have been put under in recent years, amid budget cuts, degrading pay and benefits, the coronavirus pandemic, and the way they’re increasingly treated as a political football.
“I think our teachers really operate in a thankless job and they’re put in some pretty impossible situations,” Ferraro said. “They’re operating in broken systems and then when they can’t get the broken system to work without appropriate resources, parents are frustrated with the teacher.”
Ferraro plans to vote for “pro-teacher” candidates that are actively proposing solutions to improve Kenosha’s public schools. That sort of leadership is essential for children to learn effectively and for parents to be able to support their children, Ferraro said.
It may also be crucial to preserving the institution of public education. Owing to the variety of stressors they’re facing, an increasing number of teachers are retiring or quitting education altogether, without an adequate pipeline to fill in the gaps behind them.
While some parents like Ferraro are voting with teachers, school funding, and equity in mind, others are casting their ballots driven by culture war issues—such as efforts to censor the teaching of racism and a push to limit the rights of LGBTQ students—that have recently exploded into the mainstream.
School board races were once sleepy, nonpartisan affairs, but next week’s school board elections in Wisconsin have become something of a referendum on what the role of a public school should be. Over the past two years, school boards, teachers, and administrators in the state and across the country have come under increasing scrutiny thanks to well-funded, coordinated, and propaganda-fueled attacks from conservatives.
This alliance of (mostly) right-wing politicians, donors, activists, and yes, some parents—spurred on by conservative special interests and right-wing media—argues that it’s merely fighting for “parents rights,” “school choice,” and to prevent the indoctrination of children.
But public education advocates believe this effort represents just the latest step in a long-term conservative project to weaken and ultimately destroy the public school system that 800,000-plus Wisconsin students and their communities rely on in favor of a private system for the wealthy few.
“Our public schools serve all of our students. If we want strong local communities, we need to have strong public schools to provide our kids with the education that they need to be successful adults,” said Sandy Whisler, a retired teacher and the leader of Citizen Advocates for Public Education, a public education advocacy group in Lake Mills. “So much of the current Republican agenda is meant to divide us and fragment our communities.”
In Lake Mills, where Whisler lives, two of the candidates for school board are part of the so-called “Conservative Force,” a group that supports limiting the teaching of racism and its role in American history. Similar conservative slates have formed across the state, as Republicans are seeking to install partisan activists as school board leaders.
The political battle over public education isn’t isolated to school boards. Gov. Tony Evers, Democrats, education, and business leaders have called on the Republican-led legislature to use the state’s multi-billion dollar surplus to increase school funding in order to address issues surrounding students’ mental health, deal with the exodus of teachers from the workforce, and improve the quality of schools for all Wisconsin children.
The Republican-led Legislature has balked at the idea—choosing to sit on the surplus—and has instead focused on passing legislation that experts say would further weaken public schools and perpetuate a culture of fear and mistrust between parents and teachers. Just this year, Republican politicians have passed bills to:
- make most private school students eligible for taxpayer-funded tuition subsidies;
- expand charter schools that rely on taxpayer dollars at the expense of public schools;
- dissolve the Milwaukee Public School District and replace it with four to eight new districts;
- censor the accurate teaching of racism and history in the US; and
- allow parents to sue teachers or staff members who use the names and pronouns chosen by their students, if the parents disagree with those names or pronouns.
Whisler, who is 72 and grew up in a conservative Republican household that valued public schools, lamented that they have become a political cudgel used to sow division.
“My dad was such an advocate of public education because he only got to go to school through eighth grade, and whenever there was a question about, ‘Do our taxes need to be raised for our schools,’ he was definitely in favor of that,” she said. “It didn’t matter what your political bias was or your political leading, you were a citizen of a public community and you supported public schools.”
But increasingly, Republicans have set their sights on remaking public education to fit their own beliefs and agendas.
“This is part of an agenda that is anti-public and as we see that there’s less money going to public schools and more money going to private schools, we’ll have a growth in private schooling, and again an increasing crisis in public schools,” said Michael Apple, a professor of curriculum and instruction and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Gov. Tony Evers has already vetoed the bill censoring the teaching of racism and will all but certainly veto the GOP’s other education bills as well. But even if the bills are doomed to fail, they raise questions about the future of public education in Wisconsin—especially if Evers were to be defeated this November.
“How many bills have been proposed recently to support public schools? We’re not seeing that initiative come from the Republican legislators to provide additional support for public schools,” said Kim Kohlhaas, president of the American Federation of Teachers Wisconsin. “Everything they’re looking at is moving towards the direction of another school system.”
Inside The Republican Plan to Divert Public Funds to Private Schools
Since the early 1990s, Republicans have had a stranglehold over Wisconsin state government. They’ve controlled the state Assembly for 26 of the past 30 years, the state Senate for 20 of the past 30 years, and the governor’s mansion for three-fifths of that time. From 2011 through 2018, under former Gov. Scott Walker, Republicans had total control of the state government.
During that time, they gutted public education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars and expanded a private-school voucher program—initially intended for low-income households in Milwaukee—to include wealthier students across the state.
“The Legislature has utilized its role in the state to create more have and have-not situations,” said Jenni Hofschulte, a southeast organizer at Wisconsin Public Education Network and parent of a Milwaukee Public school student.
Now, Republicans are looking to take things even further with AB 971, a bill that would make most of the state’s 119,000 private school students eligible for taxpayer-funded tuition subsidies, regardless of family income. The proposal would remove limits on program enrollment and household income caps, allowing families who are already paying tuition at private schools to receive public dollars for their child’s private school education—an idea that many parents, educators, and public school advocates oppose.
“If public education isn’t where a parent wants their child to attend school, I think that’s okay. I don’t have a judgment about that, but that’s also their choice and should become their cost, not the public’s cost,” Ferraro said.
The bill could have enormous consequences for public school parents like Ferraro. By siphoning dollars away from the state and toward parents of private school students—many of whom are wealthy—the bill would mean less state aid for public school districts, which could force local officials to find other ways to make up for that lost revenue. As a result, the policy could lead localities to raise property taxes by as much as $577 million, according to an estimate from the state education agency. But Republican-imposed levy limits would likely force school districts to cut more services and potentially drive some to dissolve.
Republicans have claimed those figures are inflated and argued there’s nothing wrong with directing public dollars to private schools, but Whisler rejects that argument.
“Our public tax dollars are to be used for the good of our communities, which means they need to be used for our public schools,” she said.
The idea of “choice” and flexibility for parents is rhetorically appealing to many members of the public, Apple said. But in reality, using public dollars to fund private schools would effectively eliminate the vision of public education as an institution that responds “to the needs in daily life of the vast majority of people here, not just the businesses.”
Republicans Want to Double Down on Charter Schools, Despite Little Evidence of Success
Republicans also passed a bill creating a new state board with the power to authorize charter schools. Another piece of approved legislation would require such authorizing entities to allow existing charter school operators to open additional schools if they earn positive reviews from the state Department of Public Instruction.
Charter schools are publicly funded and tuition free, but are privately run by individuals and boards who are free from most state rules and regulations. In exchange for that flexibility, charter schools must meet certain standards and remain financially stable. If they don’t, they can be shut down, which has happened in Wisconsin and been hugely disruptive for families. Nearly half of Wisconsin charter schools that received federal start-up grants between 2006 and 2014 shut down or never opened at all, costing taxpayers nearly $49 million, according to a 2019 study.
While charter schools are ostensibly academic institutions, they can also become for-profit, which in some cases, effectively turns education into a money-making enterprise rather than a public service.
Proponents of charter schools argue they can be more innovative and flexible and provide parents with greater choice to determine where their children go to schools, but studies have found that on average, charter schools are not better or worse in student performance than traditional public schools.
The bills to expand charter schools have been criticized by education advocates, who argue they’re just another way to deprive already-struggling public schools of further resources.
“I would encourage anybody to go to a public school and have conversations with the teachers and their students and their administrators to find out if they have what they need. Are these buildings well-maintained?,” Kohlhaas asked. “Do they have all the upgrades that they need in order to be safe? Do the teachers have the resources and the textbooks that they need? How big are the class sizes? Any of those aspects of the public school system that we are concerned about has been created by lack of funding.”
Apple, himself a former K-12 teacher and union president, believes these bills collectively represent an all-out effort from conservative Republicans to erode education as a public service, drain the public budget for the benefit of affluent private schools, and ultimately, to leave the very concept of education of children to the private market.
“What we’re seeing is this vision of just turning to the market and forcing schools to compete with each other, forcing teachers to compete with each other, and do away with strong unions—and that’s been a horrible success for the right here,” he said.
The impact of privatizing education on a grand scale could be devastating. Public schools are obligated to teach all students—including those with special needs—and to be responsive to the diversity of their student bodies.
“Voucher schools don’t have to do that at all, so what we get is increasingly schools that are gated communities for more affluent or for white kids,” Apple said. “What we have is then a public school that has to reach everybody becoming underfunded as money is drained from public schools and goes to voucher programs and supposedly nonprofit charter schools—though, for many of them, they are actually closet [for-profit] schools.”
Supporters of charter schools often point to growing support for charter schools among Black, brown communities, where public schools are chronically underfunded and families struggle with higher rates of poverty, segregation, housing insecurity, and incarceration than their white peers. To be sure, Wisconsin’s public schools have not delivered for many of these families. In 2019, Wisconsin had the widest achievement gap between black and white students of any state according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The failure of public schools—which, again, have been underfunded by the Republican-led Legislature—to address these inequities has prompted some Black and brown parents to move their children out of public schools and into charter schools.
“We have among the highest rates of differential achievement in the entire nation between Black and white kids,” Apple said. “So for some members and movements within the African-American communities…they would say, ‘Look, it’s a risk, but we had no other choice. We’ve tried having great faith within public schools and unfortunately, the public schools in Wisconsin still have extraordinarily high rates of differential achievement.”
“If school choice was the way to raise all ships and to fix public schools and fix education, then Milwaukee would be a panacea of education and we wouldn’t have any educational woes,” Hofschulte said.
Instead, students in the school district have continued to struggle academically amid social and economic issues, including high rates of poverty, segregation, and housing instability. Research has shown that addressing these issues is key to improving educational outcomes.
“The biggest determinant of student outcome is actually the economics of the family and we don’t talk about that when we’re talking about these laws,” Hofschulte said.
Instead of talking about those issues, Republicans now want to eliminate Milwaukee Public Schools altogether.
Republicans Love The Idea of Local Control and Local Input Until It’s About Milwaukee
As part of their education agenda, Wisconsin Republicans this year passed a bill that would eliminate the Milwaukee Public School district by July 2024 and replace it with 4 to 8 smaller districts.
Under the proposal from Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and other Republicans outside of Milwaukee, school buildings and employees would be transferred to the new districts and students could be pushed out of their current schools.
Darling’s bill was passed without local support or input and has drawn backlash from Milwaukee city and school leaders, parents, and public education advocates.
“We haven’t been able to find a local person at the county level or at the city level that has come forward asking the Legislature to take this action. It’s pretty gross, frankly, and families are panicking,” Hofschulte, the MPS parent, said. “There are really smart people in Milwaukee who would really give the Legislature a lot of really amazing ideas and ways that they could help the city and breaking up the district is not one of them.”
Darling and her allies have suggested the district’s poor test scores are reason enough to try something new and give parents more control, but they’ve failed to offer any evidence or examples that breaking up the school district into smaller ones would improve student outcomes.
“There’s no data to support that that’s going to help any children in the Milwaukee area,” Gov. Evers said at a news conference in March. “So, it’s likely to be vetoed.”
The GOP’s Efforts to Censor History and The Teaching of Race
Wisconsin Republicans haven’t just tried to overhaul the structure of schools in Wisconsin, they’re also actively working to limit how teachers can instruct and interact with students.
In January, the Legislature passed a bill to limit how educators can teach about the consequences and dangers of racism. Supporters of the ban on the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” (CRT)—a graduate and law school-level concept exploring the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies—argued that the idea teaches white children to feel bad about themselves and feel guilt over their race.
Opponents of the bill—who rightly point out that CRT has never been taught in K-12 schools—argue that it represents an effort to whitewash American history.
“It’s censorship. There’s no other way to frame it. They are trying to control a narrative and to control an aspect of history,” Kohlhaas said. “Sometimes we have to know uncomfortable things. Sometimes we have to talk about uncomfortable things.”
Gov. Evers vetoed the bill in February, but Ferraro, the Kenosha parent, finds it troubling that the idea of teachers hiding the real history of the US from students was even on the table.
“I believe that learning our country’s whole truth and history is really important. Why would we not want to understand it and learn from it and do better for current and future generations?” Ferraro said.
She also finds the proposed ban deeply ironic, given America’s views on free speech and censorship.
“If we heard another country censoring their media or not sharing whole truths about their history, we would absolutely say, ‘What a shame not to have free speech’ or ‘What a shame that they’re being censored from the truth,’” Ferraro said. “We hear people say that right now given what’s happening in the world, so I find it interesting that we’re doing that here to ourselves.”
Regardless of the truth, the Republican Party’s attacks on CRT have caught on and the term has effectively been co-opted by conservative activists who’ve exploited it as a catch-all term to rile up parents and non-parents alike who’ve been angry over COVID masking policies, virtual learning, diversity and equity initiatives in schools, and a growing focus on social and emotional learning—a curriculum that helps students manage emotions, develop good relationships, and make decisions in order to maintain good mental health.
The political strategy of attacking CRT has proven effective at raising turnout among Republican voters in other states, especially seniors, but has had devastating consequences for teachers and school districts, leading to death threats, angry confrontations, and a culture of mistrust and fear among educators.
In Wisconsin, the proposed ban would have allowed parents to sue the district if they felt teachers violated the law. The bill would have also penalized districts that violate the law by forcing the state superintendent to withhold 10% of state aid from that district’s schools.
Sen. Andre Jacque (R-DePere), one of the bill’s co-sonspors, argued that passing this bill was in line with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s belief that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” His comments are a gross oversimplification of Dr. King’s life’s work to highlight and dismantle the inherent racism in American institutions and an example of what Apple described as conservatives claiming the mantle of oppression and co-opting the language of the Civil Rights Movement to enact their own agenda
Despite Evers’ veto, Hofschulte is worried about what could happen if conservative ideologues win some of these school board races next week.
“Even if these bills are vetoed by the governor, he can’t really stop local municipalities and local school boards from enacting some of this stuff on their own,” she said. “It doesn’t go away because Governor Evers vetoed that bill.”
Republicans Declare War on LGBTQ Students
The CRT bill may be dead, but Republicans’ efforts to create a culture of mistrust among parents and teachers to the detriment of students is alive and well. The GOP-led Legislature recently approved a bill establishing a so-called “Parental Bill of Rights” and allowing parents to sue districts, educators, and school staff when those provisions are violated.
While some of those assertions are common-sense and already protected by law—such as the right to determine medical care for the child, determine the type of school the child attends, and the right to engage with school-board members—others have proven controversial.
The bill gives parents the right to review books and instructional materials and opt their children out of lessons based on either religion or personal conviction. Advocates are most concerned about the bill’s inclusion of a “right” that would give parents the ability to sue public school staff who use the names and pronouns chosen by their students, if the parents disagree with those names or pronouns.
Hofschulte described the bill as “hogwash” and an “en election year stunt” that is having a “chilling effect” on the ability of teachers to teach.
Kohlhaas, the president of the teachers union, wondered what exactly the aim of the bill is.
“What problem are they trying to solve? Our schools are very inclusive and welcoming,” she said. “The purpose of a public school system is that everybody is a part of it—everybody—and when they start picking and choosing and identifying people in a different manner to oppress them in some way, it goes against what our society needs and believes in when it comes to public schools.”
Supporters of the bill argue it’s intended to protect children from materials focused on race, gender, sex and sexual orientation, but opponents believe it will be deeply painful for minority and LGBTQ students.
Ferraro, who supports her 10-year-old child choosing to identify as gender nonbinary, understands the complexity of the issue for parents, but worries that such a policy will harm children.
“I can understand those parents out there who don’t understand someone who identifies as LGBTQ, but it doesn’t mean that the teacher’s responsibility goes away,” Ferraro said. “What happens is that the teacher’s responsibility increases to keep that parent’s child safe and focus on learning.”
For LGBTQ kids who may not have that support at home, the classroom could be their only source of acceptance.
“If the child doesn’t have a safe adult at home, they’re going to begin to seek out a safe adult elsewhere and that often happens to be in school, where they’re at the most,” she said. “We know that acceptance and having just one safe adult to share with allows for greater mental health outcomes…And obviously what happens when we have improved mental health outcomes is we can learn better and we can do better and we can focus on our education and not constantly feeling different or perhaps depressed or anxious or suicidal.”
Whisler, the former teacher and leader of the citizen’s advocacy group in Lake Mills, believes that the effort represents an attempt by some parents to micromanage their children instead of allowing them to become independent thinkers. Not only is this bad for students, but to hear Whisler tell it, it’s bad for teachers.
“Our educators are trained to make responsible, ethical decisions and parents trying to dictate what happens in individual children’s classrooms is not feasible and it does not do anyone any good,” she said. “I think it will deter people from going into the education profession… Who would choose to go into a profession where every word you say is going to be monitored? And either monitored by people who really have no basis for that monitoring or no background in what you’re doing?”
This sort of policy also calls into question the broader purpose of public schools, according to Ferraro.
While some parents, conservative activists, and school board candidates want schools to focus solely on subjects like math, science, and reading—i.e., ones that teach “hard skills” and prepare children for jobs—and avoid subjects like equity, race, social and emotional learning, Ferraro believes teachers and schools have a greater responsibility.
“While we would probably all love to say that school is just a place to learn, the fact is that it’s not and it hasn’t been for some time now,” she said. “There’s a huge number of children where school is not about learning. School is about a place for safety, school is a place for warmth, school is a place for food and when those things are available and provided, then they can learn.”
Ferraro’s argument acknowledges teachers have been asked to deal with a lot of societal ills that occur outside the classroom, but in her mind, it’s impossible to keep those issues from trickling into the school system.
“If you have a child that comes to school hungry or traumatized or without proper clothing or hygiene, it’s going to make it difficult for them to learn and not only for that child to learn, but then other children around them,” she said.
Ferraro believes that If we want teachers to focus only on teaching, we need to take the steps that make it possible for them to do so instead of exposing them to scrutiny and pressure.
At first glance, the idea of a Parental Bill of Rights makes a lot of rhetorical sense and seems reasonable. But in reality, it’s more complicated.
“If this was simply part of saying that anyone who has a kid in schools or anyone who’s part of a community that has kids in schools have the right to go in and have a voice—who could argue with that?,” Apple, the UW professor, said. “But we have to look at what’s the other stuff that they’re doing at exactly the same moment—cutting health care, cutting funding for public schools, cutting money for unhoused people…All of that is going on simultaneously.”
The War on Public Schools is Part of a Larger Conservative Agenda
Next week’s school board races and this fall’s gubernatorial election will determine whether the Republican Party’s education agenda becomes widely implemented in Wisconsin. No matter what happens, Apple says it’s important to ask why the conservative attacks have caught on and proven so politically potent.
He believes that Wisconsin Republicans—and their peers in other states—have effectively exploited economic fears and real concerns parents have about their children’s futures for the benefit of the larger conservative political project.
“Republican legislators wet their finger and they put it up in the air and they say, ‘What can we do to mobilize parents who are really, really worried about their kids?’” Apple said.
He pointed to the declining economic fortunes that many Wisconinites have experienced in recent decades. As the state’s labor unions have declined in power—thanks to Republican-passed legislation like Gov. Walker’s Act 10—income inequality has increased and workers have been thrust into increasing economic precarity, with fewer benefits, less job security, and middling pay.
In 2018, about one in five Wisconsinites earned less than $12 per hour and many others have struggled to keep up amid the rising cost of living. While the labor market has become more worker-friendly over the past year, parents’ fears about their children’s futures are deeply ingrained.
According to Apple, Republicans have taken advantage of these fears to convince parents that the only curriculum that matters is one that “has an economic future” and prepares children to get jobs. Rather than address the costs of rising rents, foreclosures, and the general precarity of American life, Apple argues Republicans have exploited those issues and turned parents—many of whom are not racist or at least don’t think about these things—against schools and teachers who are teaching about racism and slavery and asking difficult questions about America’s history.
“If you can turn the tables and say the real issue is not that people are losing their jobs because profits are more important and shareholders deserve more money than workers, but the real problem now is that look at what these schools are teaching…That responds to many of the fears,” Apple said. “It’s a brilliant strategy and it is often quite racist in and of itself.”
Apple was quick to note that he doesn’t dismiss America’s “very, very long history of racism,” especially in a state like Wisconsin, which has the highest rate of Black incarceration in the nation. One of every 36 Black Wisconsin adults is in prison, according to a recent report from The Sentencing Project.
“I think that we have to be very, very cautious about anything that says, this state isn’t systemically racist,” Apple said. “But the daily life of… factories not caring, of money going upwards, not downwards, and jobs not being created—all of that is systemic and the right has been brilliant in shifting the blame from their own decisions onto the backs of people who are really justifiably scared.”
This strategy isn’t limited to schools either, according to Apple. He argues that it’s part of a larger corporate agenda that uses patriotism and religion to obscure conservatives long-held goals of gutting the budgets of public institutions that so many families rely on.
“This would mean again that public schools and public institutions, healthcare institutions, will be in grave danger,” he said.
The Fight is Not Over. Next Week’s Elections Matter.
So how can Wisconsin parents who believe in public education prevent this destruction of public education?
One crucial step, Apple said, is to mobilize pro-public school forces and ensure they show up to the polls for school board elections to defeat extremist conservatives who could have a real shot at winning in low-turnout elections. He pointed to what’s happening in Madison, where conservative blogger and former Dane County supervisor David Blaska is mounting a write-in campaign against incumbent school board member Ali Muldrow, who is the only candidate appearing on the ballot.
Apple worries that many voters may see that Muldrow is the only name on the ballot and not bother to cast a vote in the race, which could create an opening for Blaska to win.
“We would see someone like that being elected simply because even though most people would not want these people in city councils and school boards, they will win cause they will have a thousand people write in their names and other people—because they don’t understand the way the right operates in Wisconsin and elsewhere—haven’t filled out the ballot completely,” he said.
With just days to go until Tuesday’s elections, Apple holds out hope that an ideologically conservative takeover of school boards won’t be widespread. He noted that he’s part of a coalition of teachers, librarians, unions, and communities that are fighting back against the onslaught of conservative attacks.
“I am very cautiously optimistic about this, but the right is very, very smart about how it mobilizes,” Apple said. “I think it’s 51% that we will stop this and 49% that we won’t. So this is up for grabs right now.”