The last several years have been tumultuous for educators. The COVID-19 pandemic had parents questioning mask policies, putting teachers in the crossfire between them and school administrators. That conflict gave rise to such groups as Moms for Liberty, who seek to impose their beliefs on educators and parents alike.
In 2023, voters in Wisconsin and many other states were successful in defeating extremist school board candidates associated with such groups.
Looking ahead to this year’s upcoming school board elections in April, Wisconsin Education Association Council President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen says she thinks Wisconsin voters have learned everything they need to know about extremist groups’ involvement in local school districts.
“Groups like Moms for Liberty and MassResistance have propped up school board candidates and have been exposed for extremism, the book banning, threatening educators for doing our jobs. And some groups have been designated hate groups, and Wisconsin voters have stood up for our students in our public schools at the ballot box, defeating slates of these candidates last April,” Wirtz-Olsen said. “I think Wisconsinites are quite honestly tired of those divisive mudslinging politics and are really ready to move forward with policies that are going to advance our state.”
Wisconsinites don’t appear to be the only ones who are tired. Extremist candidates lost big in school board races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, and Virginia. The group also suffered damage to its reputation among its conservative supporters when the husband of one of its co-founders, Bridget Ziegler, was accused of sexual battery and Ziegler told police they had both participated in sexual encounters with another woman. The scandal caused a public push to get Ziegler to resign from the Florida school board on which she serves, though she continues to refuse to do so. Her husband, Tom Ziegler, was ousted from his job as chair of the Republican Party of Florida on Jan. 8.
Wirtz-Olsen said she thinks it’s become clear that extremist candidates simply aren’t interested in doing anything productive for public education.
“The public is increasingly aware of these extreme tactics like the book banning and other similar tactics that aren’t really about education at all,” she said. “And instead, these groups are looking to mudsling and really distract from real issues. Wisconsin wants candidates to focus on learning, mental health, and using some of the state’s $7 billion surplus to fund public education instead of sending tax dollars to private vouchers.”
She’s hopeful voters will repeat what they did for the most part in 2023: elect candidates who support education.
“Educators work hard to provide that quality education, no exceptions,” Wirtz-Olsen said. “And while we’ve seen these politicians who want to exclude certain kids and withhold funding, in 2024 elections will absolutely determine which Wisconsin our students will experience. And as we enter 2024, I have all hope and optimism that Wisconsin will stand firmly in a place supporting our students.”
Wirtz-Olsen noted that the state faces other issues in public education in addition to extremist groups: “Wisconsin has a severe crisis in attracting and keeping educators in our schools.”
According to data released in August 2023, a third of Wisconsin teachers had left their profession before reaching the five-year mark.
There is a way to fix this, Wirtz-Olsen said: “Our union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has advanced a platform to fix the problem. Our platform includes stable predictable salary schedules and a restoration, to restore our right to negotiate with our employers, in areas like preparation time, school safety, and more. Candidates who support teachers having a say in local school decisions respect the important point of view educators who work face to face with students every day have. I think those are going to be critical components for the 2024 election.”
“I think about Wisconsin being a place that really has traditionally valued having that great education by a great teacher in front of the classroom, and we’ve been a pinnacle of education, really, for generations,” Wirtz-Olsen said. “And when I think about 2024, I think about Wisconsin reclaiming our place as a place that really stands up for a solid public education for every student, and really ensuring that the voice of educators are at the table again. I think that’s something to pay very close attention to in 2024.”