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Wisconsin Republicans revive bill that would let parents decide their kids’ names, pronouns at school

Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a similar plan last session

Art display outside Baraboo First United Methodist Church shows town members of LGBTQ community are welcome
Members of Baraboo First United Methodist Church placed an art display that reads “Open Door, Open Hearts,” outside the church to show the town that members of the LGBTQ community are welcome. Bridgit Bowden/WPR

GOP lawmakers are reviving a plan that would give parents the power to review instructional materials for their kids and decide what name and pronouns they’re allowed to use at school.

An Assembly committee heard public testimony Wednesday on the bill, dubbed the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” by Republicans.

It would also guarantee parents control over which health care services, including vaccination, their children receive at school. And schools would be required to notify parents before subjects deemed “controversial” are discussed at school.

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The bill defines controversial material as “a subject of substantial public debate, disagreement, or disapproval and specifies that the term includes instruction about gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identity, structural, systemic, or institutional racism, or content that is not age-appropriate.”

It would allow a parent to file suit if they feel those rights have been violated and win up to $10,000 plus recovered fees if they win.

A similar bill was passed last legislative session, but was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. Similar legislation has also been passed in other states including Florida, North Carolina and Iowa, and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Several activists with Moms for Liberty, an activist group that has lobbied nationwide for similar legislation, spoke in favor of the plan at Wednesday’s hearing of the Assembly Committee on Family Law.

Scarlett Johnson, chair of Ozaukee Moms for Liberty, argued that the bill would make it easier for parents to opt their children out of learning about topics that they don’t agree with.

“Cultivating a classroom environment that focuses on racial identities, gender identities and sexuality of children could reasonably be called propaganda, and it (implicates) school districts in violating parents rights,” she said.

But Rev. Breanna Illéné of the Wisconsin Council of Churches argued that the bill interferes with educational rights, which would promote censorship such as book bans.

“This legislation proposal claims to be about parental rights, but it’s more truthfully about disrupting the processes, protocols and programs about private and public schools,” she said. “It grants parents the power to interfere in the day-to-day affairs of education, dictating what educators are allowed to teach.”

Rev. Tim Schaefer, of First Baptist Church in Madison, who also testified against the plan, argued that schools can often be the only place where a queer student feels safe. He said that the legislation could take away that sense of safety.

“(Teachers would) have to potentially go to the parents for permission and out that student without knowing whether that is a safe space, a safe home,” he said.

The bill would also require schools to notify parents quickly if there is a security risk at school, or if there are changes to campus surveillance or security systems.

The proposal is supported by the conservative groups Wisconsin Family Action and Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and Stride, Inc., a charter and homeschool support company. Groups including American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, National Association of Social Workers, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Wisconsin Council of Churches and Wisconsin Education Association Council have registered against it.