Critical Race Theory: Debate over Classroom Instruction in Wisconsin

The critical race theory controversy drives an hours-long legislative debate over classroom instruction in Wisconsin

August 17, 2021   |   By Molly Beck, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jeremy Stoddard

Jeremy Stoddard

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

MADISON - Wisconsin lawmakers, educators and parents spent hours Wednesday (Aug. 11) debating whether school districts need more rules over what can be taught in classrooms and whether parents should have broad access to teachers’ materials.

At the heart of the daylong hearing at the Wisconsin State Capitol was the explosive controversy of critical race theory even though the legislation under debate doesn’t mention the concept, which argues racism has permeated American institutions and created disadvantages for people of color.

The bills were introduced earlier this year by Republican lawmakers as part of a national movement among conservatives against teaching children that systemic racism exists, a fight against an ambiguous threat that has educators concerned teachers will be pressured to whitewash history lessons.

“Teachers do not deliberately set out to make students feel bad about themselves. The problem this bill seems to identify, that Wisconsin’s teachers intentionally or otherwise want to make students feel bad, is simply not real,” said Jeremy Stoddard, a University of Wisconsin-Madison curriculum and instruction professor (Note: reading a statement authored by School of Education Dean Diana Hess).

“What I fear is that if it becomes law, it will have a chilling effect inhibiting teachers from teaching a full account of history.”

Republican lawmakers and parents on Wednesday said their support of the bills was rooted in finding inappropriate classroom materials and lessons. They argued parents should be provided immediate access to everything teachers plan to use in classrooms and that white students shouldn’t be told they are to blame for their ancestors’ role in slavery or that the U.S. is inherently racist.

“It’s not our duty to control school boards or school board philosophies or agendas,” bill author Chuck Wichgers, R-Muskego, said. “The bill gives parents recourse that if someone is breaking the law, that they have access to those materials ... this bill does not restrict teaching history.”

Alyssa Pollow, a mother of children in Germantown schools, said she supports the bills because “some of your educators are not focused on objective academics, but instead are using classroom time and school resources to push harmful political agendas.”

Rarely did anyone participating in the hearing agree on what the bills actually did or what critical race theory means. When asked, Wichgers declined to provide his definition of the concept.

“I think we’re talking past each other right now,” Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said at one point.

“(We) want history to be told as it was and as it really happened and something that we have to recognize. But at the same token, that history doesn’t make you as a Black person a victim. That history doesn’t make me a racist with white privilege either,” she said.

At another point, Assembly Education Committee chairman Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, barred Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, from asking Wichgers if he believed Wisconsin was the worst state to raise a Black child — a designation the state has received in the past based on measures of children’s well-being.

“No, we are not going that route,” he said.

“It goes to the heart of the bill,” she responded.


Note from School of Education Communications: On Wednesday, Aug. 11, UW–Madison School of Education Dean Diana Hess submitted testimony to the Senate Committee on Education and the Assembly Committee on Education during a joint public hearing on Senate Bill 411 and Senate Bill 463.

Hess was unable to attend Wednesday’s public hearing at the Wisconsin State Capitol, and her written testimony was read to the Joint Committee on Education by UW–Madison’s Jeremy Stoddard, a professor with the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Senate Bill 411 is regarding anti-racism and anti-sexism pupil instruction, and anti-racism and anti-sexism training for employees of school districts and independent charter schools. Senate Bill 463 is about requiring school boards to make information about learning materials and educational activities used for pupil instruction available to the public.