Wisconsin education news roundup - TAI News
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Wisconsin school board elections take place April 2. No matter the outcome of those elections, they will serve to punctuate, although perhaps not permanently end, a tumultuous time for public education in the state of Wisconsin. Controversial topics such as censorship have come up in school board races in Kenosha and elsewhere, with far-right candidates competing for board seats against pro-public education contenders.

Here are just a few of the events that made news in Wisconsin in the past year.

Act 20

In June 2023, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed Act 20 into law, changing the way Wisconsin schools will teach reading to early elementary school students.

The law makes a variety of changes to instruction, curriculum, assessment and intervention for literacy in grades K-3, according to a state fact sheet.

Among the changes are a requirement that schools assess the literacy of students in kindergarten through the third grade, notify parents of results, and report assessment data to the Department of Public Instruction for students identified as at risk of falling behind the expected reading level for their grade.

Act 20 also establishes what its text calls a Council on Early Literacy Curricula within a new Office of Literacy in the DPI, consisting of nine members selected by the Assembly speaker, the Senate majority leader, and the state superintendent of public instruction.

The council is supposed to recommend science-based literacy curricula and instructional materials for grades K-3 to the DPI every year. The department then makes curricula recommendations to the Wisconsin State Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

Curricula approved by the committee are not required to be used by Wisconsin public schools, but school districts can receive extra state funding if they use the state-approved materials.

In February, the DPI said the curriculum council — the members of which were mostly selected by Republicans — didn’t do its job of vetting curricula, and made its own separate recommendations to the finance committee. The Republican-controlled committee overrode the DPI’s recommendations and went ahead with the curriculum council’s proposals anyway. 

“Rainbowland”

Melissa Tempel was fired from her job as a teacher with the Waukesha School District in July 2023 after criticizing her school administration for prohibiting her from using the song “Rainbowland” by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton in her class’ spring concert.

The song’s lyrics have inclusive themes, with lines like “We are rainbows, me and you/ Every color, every hue/ Let’s shine on/ Together, we can start living in a Rainbowland.”

The principal at Heyer Elementary School and a central office administrator agreed that the song “could be deemed controversial” under district policy.

“My first graders were so excited to sing Rainbowland for our spring concert but it has been vetoed by our administration. When will it end?” Tempel wrote in a tweet on March 21, 2023.

Waukesha schools’ spring break took place not long after that tweet, and when Tempel returned to school on April 3, she said, she was met by her principal, a school board member, administrators and police and was informed she was being placed on administrative leave. The Waukesha school board voted to fire her a few months later.

While the school district used its “controversial issues policies” to justify banning “Rainbowland,” Tempel felt the song’s themes were the real issue.

Still, Tempel said the song contains no explicit mention of anything controversial.

“It’s literally nothing to do with being gay,” Tempel told the American Independent Foundation. “Even if it did, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it was just so mind-boggling.”

Tempel sued the Waukesha School District over her firing in September 2023. In December, a federal judge denied the school district’s motion to dismiss Tempel’s lawsuit.

Racine County principal

A school principal in Racine County said he lost his job simply because he is gay.

Jeff Peterson, formerly the principal at Raymond Elementary School, sued the Raymond School District in October 2023 after his contract wasn’t renewed, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

“If Mr. Peterson wasn’t gay, then this discrimination from the board would not be happening. And we don’t think he would be non-renewed,” Peterson’s attorney told reporters after the school board voted 4-1 against renewing the contract, according to WPR.

The Raymond School Board claimed Peterson was placed on leave pending an investigation into “concerns about the principal’s conduct.”

Peterson’s lawsuit makes sweeping claims of discrimination against the Raymond School District. He claims that the election of board president Audrey Kostuch and board member Gwen Keller in November 2022 led to an increase in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and discrimination.

Peterson said his partner’s health insurance coverage was canceled without notice in August 2021 and he was told “same-sex partners are not covered on family policies for any reason.” In March 2022, Peterson claims, he was told by the superintendent that he needed to have an adult present while teaching fifth grade boys to ensure he was not trying to “indoctrinate children.”

In April 2022, Peterson alleges, his contract was intended to include a $5,000 performance raise, another $15,000 to cover the lost health insurance, and a title change to assistant superintendent — but the board reneged on its commitments.

According to WPR, parents showed up at Raymond School Board meetings leading up to Peterson’s removal to show support, but to no avail.

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The Wisconsin Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.