By Will Flanders and Jessica Holmberg.
More than ever, America’s culture wars are on prominent display in our schools. Recently, a Madison school proposed racially segregated meetings for individuals to cope with the verdict in the George Floyd case—only stopping when the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) pointed out that this was unconstitutional. Such outrageous conduct is not limited to some of the most liberal areas of the state. Indeed, “Woke” topics like Critical Race Theory and 1619 Project are being taught in schools from Burlington to Tomah.
For those not up-to-date on the latest “woke” terminology, Critical Race Theory (CRT) asserts that race is a human construct used to oppress certain races (specifically black Americans). The 1619 Project is a controversial version of history made popular by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, which aims to revise U.S. History as it relates to slavery by asserting that America “began” after the first African American slaves arrived in 1619. Such absurd versions of “history” will only become more prevalent, as the Biden administration has proposed that grants for CRT be given out by the federal government.
For every example like this that generates media coverage, there are probably 10 more that don’t. It is critical that parents are aware of what is being taught in their child’s schools. Children may not always know when they are being indoctrinated, and it can be extremely difficult for parents to discover what is being taught.
For example, WILL conducted an open records investigation into the 10 largest districts in the state asking for any teaching materials which include specified “woke” terms. Unfortunately, we found receiving the relevant information to be a tedious, time-consuming, and costly task. For instance, during a Zoom call with two representatives from Racine School District to discuss the records request, we were told by one representative that she did not “believe teachers would fulfill this request,” that the request would take “thousands of hours of work,” and would have a large location fee associated. In the same call we were also told the district wasn’t teaching any of the requested terms anyway—even sending us the district controversial teachings policy—and that the request included too many teachers to manageably fulfill (17 teachers.) One can only imagine how defeated and unsure a parent would feel after such a call.
Later, after consulting with an attorney at WILL, we informed the district we would pay any associated fees; however, we would not modify the request by reducing the number of teachers as the request fell within the parameters of the law. Within 10 business days, the school district fulfilled the request without payment, including all 17 teachers and included teaching materials that directly contradicted their claim about not teaching any of the requested terms. And although the request was eventually completed it took a lot of time and effort on our end and even required the use of an attorney, something which cannot be expected of any parent.
Furthermore, although Racine did not end up sending an invoice, other school districts have sent invoices with large associated fees. One egregious example of a fee associated with records requests was sent by Kenosha Unified School District, which, even after substantially narrowing down the request, invoiced an estimated cost of $1,208.29 to be paid before receiving any records! While this is the largest invoice received, it is still just one of many. We also received invoices for $491 from Waukesha School District, $400 from Janesville School District, $351 from Appleton School District, and $360 from Green Bay School District.
The average parent cannot be expected to pay these massive fees. Even if a parent only requests materials for their student(s)’ classes they’d still be requesting up to seven classes per semester per student, which is a far more detailed request than WILL’s.
Fortunately, there is a remedy available. In Arizona, the Goldwater Institute has put forth model legislation that would require the vast majority of teaching material to be made available to families online. WILL is proposing that a similar bill be considered in Wisconsin.
At the end of each school year, teachers would be required to upload these materials to a publicly accessible web site. In recognition of the fact that some of the most insidious material being used in schools doesn’t come from the curriculum itself, the legislation requires that supplementary materials be uploaded as well. This proposal would shed much needed light on the sort of material that is being taught in Wisconsin classrooms.
Importantly, this bill does not ban the teaching of any particular material. If individuals in a particular school district wish to use Howard Zinn’s screed to teach American history, they are free to do so. But no longer can such instruction occur in the dark, without the input of those whose children are being taught. Moreover, if school districts insist on teaching material that is outside the mainstream of the communities in which they exist, parents will have more ammunition for taking advantage of other alternatives, like charter schools and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.
This proposal is part of a growing parental empowerment movement across the country. Policymakers increasingly recognize that empowered parents are the best advocates for change and improvement in schools. This legislation would further arm parents with the knowledge they need to make decisions about how and where their children will be educated.
Will Flanders is Education Policy Research Director for the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Jessica Holmberg is Policy Associate at WILL.