Home Part of States Newsroom
State schools superintendent, legislators deliver divergent messages on education


State schools superintendent, legislators deliver divergent messages on education

Sep 25, 2023 | 6:45 am ET
By Baylor Spears
State schools superintendent, legislators deliver divergent messages on education
Dr. Jill Underly delivers her annual State of Education address. (Screenshot via WisEye)

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Jill Underly defended diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts and rejected the politicization of public schools in her annual State of Education address last week.

Underly’s address came as Wisconsin state lawmakers have clashed over schools in recent weeks. Republican lawmakers have focused their efforts on cultural issues, while Democrats have called for pulling back from publicly funded private school vouchers and greater investments in public education. 

During her address, Underly called classrooms “some of the most inclusive and equitable places in our state,” despite, she said, “the push from some leaders to try and homogenize learning in a way that is just not reflective of historical or current reality, nor of a child’s lived experience.” 

The comments come in a year that DEI has become a controversial issue nationally and in Wisconsin. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently said that he would try to withhold pay raises from 34,000 at UW System schools unless the universities cut positions that promote diversity, equity and inclusion on campuses. 

“This is a good moment to remember that the curriculum — which reflects the diversity of the human struggle in progress — is in fact, reflective of the history of this country, and affirming the lives of our Black, Indigenous and students of color matter. It’s not political, it’s a statement of fact,” Underly said. “Also it bears remembering that the safety — the safety of all kids —  is a requisite for every kid, and creating safety for LGBTQ+ kids is not controversial. It’s the bare minimum.”

Underly said hope for the future “keeps us going and working toward a better world despite all the mess that tries to derail us.” She added that directly addressing what she called “the mess” — referring to political battles that have engulfed schools recently — is an important step for policymakers in Wisconsin.

Underly spoke about DPI’s work with lawmakers and other stakeholders this year to pass a bill that is meant to improve the quality of reading instruction in the state. 

That bill, passed by state lawmakers and signed by Evers this year, is meant to revamp the way that reading is taught in the state so that students focus more heavily on the “science of reading” — an approach that emphasizes phonics and learning to sound out letters and phrases. 

“Was it messy? Yes, it was. Would I have preferred it to have not been? Of course,” Underly said. “However, we did get the reading bill that we know will make a difference for kids? 100%.”

Underly said that she believes in public schools and emphasized that public education isn’t partisan. 

“There is reasoning behind why our school board elections are in the spring with other races outside of political parties,” Underly said, citing the Wisconsin Constitution’s guarantee of free, uniform public schools for all children. 

While state lawmakers came to agreement on the reading law, they have continued to diverge along party lines on other education issues this year, including diversity programs. Recently, Republican lawmakers have refocused on increasing “parental choice” by expanding taxpayer financing for private schools and targeting diversity instruction in schools, while Democrats have called for phasing out private school vouchers and investing in public schools, including teachers and students.

Republicans resurrect culture war bills 

On the same day Underly delivered her address, Sen. Van Wanggard (R-Racine) and Reps. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) resurrected a bill that would establish a “Parent Bill of Rights” in Wisconsin. 

The bill would establish a number of “rights” for parents including the right to review instructional materials and outlines used by schools, to receive notice when a “controversial subject” is going to be discussed in school, to opt a child out of a class or instructional materials for religious or personal conviction reasons and to review medical records and opt a child out of medical requirements. 

The bill would also give parents the final say on certain aspects of school life including which names and pronouns are used to address a child while at school and religious instruction of a child. 

“Parent rights have been disrespected regarding the education, healthcare, and overall well-being of their children,” the bill authors wrote in a co-sponsorship memo. “A parent bill of rights is a critical response to this experience by too many families.”

A similar measure passed the Legislature in 2022 but Gov. Tony Evers vetoed it.

Transgender Parent and Non-Binary Advocacy caucus members Rep. Melissa Ratcliff (D-Cottage Grove) and Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) condemned the legislation in a statement on Thursday. 

“It is a bill designed, in part, to bully teachers, school boards, and students about race and gender. It is hard to know which element of this bill is the most egregious, but certainly forbidding students to determine their preferred name and pronouns in school is right at the top of the list,” Ratcliff stated. 

Noting that Evers would likely veto the legislation if it passes the Republican-led Legislature, Ratcliff added that the Republican Party is “obsessed with its war on marginalized and vulnerable communities, including the transgender and non-binary communities.”

The bill is similar to legislation that Republicans have introduced on a national level and that was signed by Florida Gov. Ron Desantis. 

The bill also follows the resurrection of two bills by Republican lawmakers this year that would bar transgender girls and women from competing in female athletics.

Democrats’ bills would phase out school vouchers and invest in public education

Democratic lawmakers, in contrast, have renewed calls for investment in public schools by introducing sweeping legislation that would reform education in Wisconsin. 

The first bill package introduced by Democrats would phase out private school choice programs and require increased transparency and accountability from the statewide, Racine and Milwaukee voucher programs. 

The focus on voucher programs and public school investment comes in a year when the state budget passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Evers included the largest ever increase in state aid to independent charter schools and private school vouchers. Public school advocates also criticized the budget for not including an inflationary increase for the state’s public schools. 

“We want to make sure that there is a very clear voice that we are putting out there that says that we should be looking at other options,” Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said at a press conference about the bills related to the choice program. “Wisconsin cannot afford to fund two competing school systems. We need urgent action to stop the unchecked expansion of the voucher programs and independent charter schools.”

The second package of bills includes raising the special education reimbursement from 33.3% to 90% — the current reimbursement rate for private voucher schools — and prohibiting discrimination against students with disabilities at voucher schools. Another bill would authorize DPI to award grants to school boards that decide to terminate their use of a nickname, logo, mascot or team name associated with an American Indian tribe or American Indian. 

Lawmakers said the bills would address action items that are “most needed for public school staff and educators to meet the needs of students both in and out of the classroom.” 

“The right to public education is enshrined in Wisconsin’s Constitution and through this process we’ve created schools where every student belongs,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “That means that they can go to school and know that they will not experience discrimination like they might if they were to attend a voucher school, seek justice in their school’s mascot, and know that their teachers and administrators have what they need to support them in the educational journey.”

A Super PAC that supports Democrats, created by the owner of the Minocqua Brewing Company, has also announced that it plans to sue the Legislature in an attempt to stop public funding for private school vouchers in Wisconsin.

Larson and Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) also introduced a package of bills meant to address the crisis in hiring and retaining quality educators in Wisconsin. A recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report found that the teacher turnover rate — or the rate at which teachers are moving school districts or leaving the profession altogether — has risen sharply.  

The lawmakers said that the bills would address this issue by treating teachers as professionals. 

The bills include establishing that teachers’ base pay should not be less than the amount that state legislators make. Teachers that have worked for at least 10 school years would be required to receive no less than the base and an additional $15,000. The package of bills also includes mandating teacher preparation periods, requiring that school boards include a nonvoting teacher representative and establishing a grant program that would encourage people to pursue a career in teaching. 

“The importance of reestablishing professionalism in our education workforce cannot be overstated; this is especially true when looking at future generations of educators in Wisconsin,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “Respect, support, and appreciation must be reestablished to mitigate the detrimental effects of de-professionalization in the teaching field.”

Lawmakers are circulating the bills for cosponsorship, however, they are unlikely to progress in the Republican-led Legislature.