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Wisconsin GOP bill would make it easier for K-12 students to transfer because of COVID-19 restrictions

Proposal would allow students to transfer because of pandemic mitigation efforts or lack thereof

A girl in a face mask rests her head in her hand as she listens to a story being read.
First-graders wear face masks as they sit during a lesson Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, at Hackett Elementary School in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

It would be easier for K-12 students in Wisconsin to transfer schools because of COVID-19 restrictions under a Republican-backed bill before the state Legislature.

Under the proposal, students in public or private schools across the state would be able to transfer this school year or next school year because of face covering or vaccine requirements — or lack thereof — in their district. The bill ensures state funding would follow the student to their new school. It would also bar the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association from prohibiting transfer students from playing sports at their new school.

Speaking at a committee hearing on the proposal Thursday, Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the plan empowers parents to move their children to districts that more closely align with their values.

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“At a time when families are incredibly unnerved with how their school district is responding to COVID-19, parents need to have the option to enroll their children in the best educational opportunity in regards to mask and vaccine policies, whether that includes masking, vaccines or refraining from those practices,” Dittrich said.

Last week, a liberal super PAC helped a Waukesha parent file a federal lawsuit arguing the Waukesha School District’s lack of mask requirements and other preventative measures like social distancing have led to COVID-19 cases in schools. A similar lawsuit was filed Monday related to the Fall Creek School District’s policies.

“Until we put the control in the hands of parents, we’re going to tie up the courts and deal with this legal pressure,” Dittrich said at Thursday’s hearing.

The only organization to register official support for the proposal with the Legislature on Thursday was School Choice Wisconsin, a group that supports the state’s taxpayer-funded private school voucher program.

Groups that have registered their official opposition include the WIAA, Association of Wisconsin School Administrators and Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, told lawmakers the group opposes the bill’s restrictions on the WIAA, which is a nonprofit organization, as well as the prospect of the state funding student transfers to private schools, regardless of parents’ ability to pay tuition.

“(Members of the organization) don’t like (state) money flowing to private schools when parents are able to pay,” Rossmiller said at the hearing.

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, also pushed back on the proposal during the meeting.

“It’s frustrating to sit here and listen to this rhetoric back and forth that gives the impression that school boards are hurting students,” he said.

The bill has yet to be voted on in a state Assembly or Senate committee. If approved by the full Legislature, it could be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. Evers’ office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the governor’s position on the bill.