By Eric Toney
As I travel the state in my campaign for Wisconsin Attorney General, I continually hear from parents upset with the current state of public education. Their displeasure was heightened by the pandemic, which allowed parents to see firsthand what was being taught in the classroom. Parents were also fed up with schools remaining closed, denying their kids a proper education.
Supporting parental concerns, the Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, just issued their assessment of test scores, which fell dramatically — including in Wisconsin. Sadly, partisan politics fueled this decline.
The most blatant political abuse of power during the COVID epidemic came from Attorney General Josh Kaul, who specifically targeted religious and private schools for closure at the behest of Madison’s teachers’ union. Instead of helping kids get back into the school buildings, Kaul did the exact opposite. In 2020, Kaul filed a legal brief in a case siding with an unelected Dane County bureaucrat who issued an order prohibiting students from attending religious and private schools.
While public schools shut their doors, private and religious schools worked diligently over the summer months and collaborated with Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) to provide safe, essential in-person learning. Despite this, Janel Heinrich, the unelected director of the PHMDC, unilaterally issued an order closing private and religious schools the Friday night before the first day of school. Parents and the religious schools immediately filed a lawsuit challenging this unlawful action.
In fact, Kaul carried water for the hyper-partisan PHMDC which worked hand-in-hand with the teachers’ union in an attempt to shut down in-person education entirely in Dane County, while just across the county line both public and private schools got to work educating kids. Keep in mind Madison public schools remained locked out nearly the entire 2020-21 school year. Meanwhile, bars, daycare centers, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and most other businesses in Dane County were allowed to reopen.
Even more troubling were Kaul’s legal arguments. According to Kaul, the parents and religious schools “offer[ed] no scientific evidence that either controvert[ed] the efficacy of in-person instruction restrictions or show[ed] that their proffered alternatives would be as effective” as remote learning. Kaul apparently believed that first- and second- grade students attending class through computer screens is equally as effective as in-person learning. He was wrong. Studies reveal how destructive the pandemic school shutdowns were for children.
Kaul further argued that “our constitution allows policymakers to combat COVID-19 one step at a time,” which includes shutting the doors of private and religious schools. Yet, Kaul apparently thought it was legally sound to allow businesses, including restaurants and movie theaters, to remain open while kids were forced to sit at home. Kaul’s extraordinarily blatant political legal brief, paid for by Wisconsin taxpayers, was not only an affront to the constitution, but also harmful to the kids and parents who he serves as attorney general. The ugly reality is Kaul abused his office to appease his highly partisan supporters and it was families, especially children, who paid a very high price.
Kaul has used the DOJ as a weapon to attack his political enemies on a level previously unseen in Wisconsin. As the next attorney general, I will empower parents to ensure all voices are heard and that schools — whether public or private — collaborate with parents, according to statute, as well as exercise their fundamental freedoms without the hyper-partisan attacks engaged in by Josh Kaul.
Eric Toney is Fond du Lac County District Attorney and the Republican candidate for Wisconsin Attorney General.
Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 28, 2022