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What lawmakers are planning for Wisconsin schools and what might actually pass



Members of the Wisconsin Assembly hold a floor session in the summer of 2023.

MADISON — From how much teachers should be paid, to what they should be allowed to discuss in the classroom, Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans are pursuing competing agendas for education this fall. 

With Republicans controlling the state Legislature and a Democrat in the governor’s office, many of the plans coming from both sides are unlikely to pass or be signed into law, though some compromises have been reached. 

Here’s what to know about what lawmakers are pursuing, and what they’ve already passed that’s affecting this school year.

More:In annual address, state superintendent touts new reading law, defends diversity efforts

Wisconsin Republicans propose ‘parental bill of rights,’ targeting classroom discussions about race, gender, sexual orientation

In September, some Republican lawmakers circulated a proposal for a “parental bill of rights.” It was circulated by state Reps. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger), Dave Maxey (R-New Berlin) and Amanda Nedweski (R-Pleasant Prairie); and state Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine).

The proposed bill, which hasn’t been introduced to the Assembly or Senate, is similar to a bill that lawmakers passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. 

The proposal would allow parents to opt their children out of any classroom discussions about gender, sexual orientation, race, structural racism, institutional racism or other subjects deemed to be “controversial.” It would require schools to notify parents before any such discussions in a classroom, and allow parents to sue if they aren’t notified. 

The proposed bill would also give parents the right to choose what names and pronouns their students go by at school. It would allow them to sue a governmental body or official if school staff use names and pronouns chosen by their students if the parents disagree with those names or pronouns.

State lawmakers in the Transgender Parent and Non-Binary Advocacy Caucus condemned the legislation, with Rep. Melissa Ratcliff, a Democrat from Cottage Grove, saying it was designed to “bully teachers, school boards and students about race and gender.”

The bill is unlikely to become law, as long as Evers is governor. Conservative school board members and organizations have already been pursuing similar goals through school board policies and court cases.

Parent-rights bills have been introduced in 26 states, according to tracking by FutureEd, including the Florida law known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation through high school.

Other bills Republicans are pursuing include:

  • A bill banning trans girls from competing on girls sports teams. The Assembly passed the bill Thursday; it has not yet gone to a vote in the Senate. Evers said he would veto it.
  • A bill requiring high schools to rank students, and requiring UW System institutions and technical colleges to admit those who rank in the top 5%. The bill has had a hearing in the Assembly but not yet in the Senate.

Wisconsin Democrats propose higher teacher pay and phasing out vouchers

Democratic state lawmakers have publicized three packages of proposed bills related to education over the past month. None are likely to get traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Some have been introduced in past sessions and failed.

One package focused on teachers. In collaboration with teachers unions, the lawmakers proposed minimum teacher salaries equal to lawmakers’ salaries (currently about $57,000), setting a wage for student teachers of at least $15 per hour, and providing grants for programs that educate prospective teachers starting in high school, according to the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Other packages included:

  • State funding to cover 90% of special education costs, which currently come mostly out of school districts’ general budgets and drain resources from other areas.
  • Phasing out parental choice programs, which provide tax-funded vouchers for lower-income families to attend private schools without having to pay tuition. Instead, co-sponsor Rep. Kristina Shelton argued, the funding should go to public schools “with public oversight,” where it can be held to “a transparent, accountable standard.”

What bills have a chance? Bipartisan agreement on boosts for lowest-spending districts, driver’s ed, Asian-American education

A bipartisan bill that would allow one group of school districts to gain access to new funding authority is moving through committees as administrators face a time crunch.

Nineteen school districts in Wisconsin where voters turned down referenda will not be able to access boosts to their revenue-raising ability because of a state law that prohibits them from accessing increases for three years.

Officials from several of those districts, including Milton, Lake Mills, Auburndale and Beloit, testified in hearings late last month in support of the change.

Beloit Superintendent Willie Garrison said the districts are not asking for more money, but “just looking to get what you already have given to everyone else.”

Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Saukville, raised concerns that the districts would “tax to the max” where voters already rejected a referendum. The increases do not come from the state, but rather allow districts to raise local taxes to reach the $11,000 per student revenue limit established by the state.

Bill author Sen. Patrick Testin, a Republican from Stevens Point, previously noted the urgency of the proposal, as administrators are finalizing their yearly budgets. The bill still must receive votes in both chambers before it could head to Evers.

Other bipartisan bills include:

Assembly could undo veto move that secured 400 years of increases

Remember Evers’ 400-year budget veto that secured annual increases to those revenue limits by $325 per pupil, in perpetuity? The Senate voted along party lines in mid-September to undo that move.

Republicans argued the move was irresponsible because it is difficult to predict what the next 400 years would look like. Democrats said the increase would provide districts with predictability because funding can change with every two-year state budget.

More:Gov. Evers boosted school funding for 400 years. Why some school leaders aren’t impressed

The Assembly would also have to override the veto for the measure to be reversed. Republicans are two members short of the supermajority needed to override a veto in that chamber, meaning two or more Democrats would have to be absent for the effort to be successful.

Voucher schools now getting more per student

Charter and private schools in the state’s voucher program are getting new boosts this year as part of a compromise reached this summer by Evers and Republican leaders. They are also set up for increases in future school years.

Thousands of students from lower-income families receive vouchers each year to attend private schools. The schools receive tax-funded vouchers for these students, who are not charged tuition.

This school year, schools participating in the programs will receive $9,893 for K-8 students, up from $8,399, and $12,387 for high schoolers, up from $9,045.

More:Wisconsin is poised to expand vouchers for private schools. Here’s what that means.

Administrators previously told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the increases could help them serve more students, but said it was difficult to predict the exact effect on enrollment. Schools also said they might use the bumps to increase competitive salaries and upgrade old facilities.

Literacy curriculum changes coming next school year

Perhaps the largest bipartisan education effort this summer was shifting to “science-based” reading curriculum for young elementary students, though the heart of the law will not be implemented until next year.

The new law will emphasize phonics, including an understanding of how letters form different sounds together. Starting next school year, it prohibits “three-cueing” — which also asks students to look for clues in context and pictures.

The enacted law prescribes personal reading plans, which include summer classes, for third-grade students who fail to meet reading benchmarks.

Beginning in 2027, for students who don’t complete their personal reading plans by the end of third grade, schools will have to provide intensive instructional services, progress monitoring and summer reading programs until the student is reading at grade level.

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