U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) doesn’t spend much time in Madison, but he made a rare appearance Friday to hear from parents about issues that appear to be at the top of the Republican agenda. These are, according to a press release, “COVID-19 masking practices, critical race theory, gender identity curriculum, and school board elections.”
What the senator heard ranged from some thoughtful comments about the need for school board transparency to largely debunked right-wing conspiracy theories.
The listening session at the Holiday Inn Madison near the East Towne Mall began with presentations by panelists invited by Johnson staff, including Richland County’s Holly Liska. She started homeschooling her young children in January 2020 because she says they were being asked to “read extremely biased political literature.”
“We are currently discussing installing human-sized litter boxes for students who identify as cats,” Liska says. “Where do we draw the line? We want to be inclusive, don’t we. But we must also keep a sense of reality.
Liska’s reference has been debunked; no school installs litter boxes. She also never cited what political literature her elementary-aged child was asked to read.
UW-Oshkosh English professor Duke Pesta was the panel’s expert on critical race theory.
“We were told that teaching grammar, punctuation and spelling is white supremacy,” says Pesta. “There’s a whole toxic mix of things that are part of this, that really drastically reduce student achievement in all areas.”
Critical race theory was repeatedly raised by Republicans during the US Senate Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. The way the parents in Johnson’s listening session used the term is a catch-all for the “Marxist”, “radical leftist” ideologies pushed by academic elites.
“Every negative change in education over the past 50 years started with college professors,” says Pesta. “And don’t underestimate these teacher unions.”
But Pesta’s evidence for how critical race theory is taught in public schools in Wisconsin came mostly from out-of-context examples from other states. The homeroom professor included in his presentation a February tweet from State Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) stating that “if parents want to ‘have a say’ in their child’s education, they should do school at home or pay private school tuition. of their family budget.
Snodgrass later deleted and apologized for the tweet. Another example is from an email sent by Ozaukee County Democrats: “Public schools are responsible for parents when their children are in their care.”
A Burlington parent quoted comedian Trevor Noah Born of a crimewho recounts his youth in South Africa during apartheid, as proof that critical race theory is imposed on his child.
“It doesn’t take too many bullies to terrorize people,” Johnson said. “And when these bullies are supported by the mainstream media and amplify what they say, it’s even easier to terrorize.”
Johnson mostly listened to panelists and testimonials from parents in the audience during the two-hour event. He wanted to learn about a particular issue that has outraged the Republican base.
“I really don’t understand this. When do all gender dysphoria issues [start]future ? But again, my heart goes out to anyone, you know, who is suffering from this. We want to help them. Where did it all start to be pushed so hard without parental involvement? Johnson said. “We haven’t really talked about it much. But that’s kind of the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Pesta blamed it on the creation of the US Department of Education in 1979 and confused gender identity with critical race theory. He cited a training slide for teachers in the Eau Claire School District that states, “Parents do not have the right to know the identity of their children. This knowledge must be earned. He also railed against so-called transgender closets.
“You have this new phenomenon called transgender closets. Lots of schools, one of which just opened in Oakland, California, where you build a closet in the school and furnish it with all kinds of clothes, from incredibly feminine to very masculine,” Pesta said. “And when the kids show up, they’re told to come into the closet and change the clothes their parents made them wear, and do whatever they want.”
In February, an article by The post of the millennium (a conservative Canadian outlet) about an Oakland high school creating a “transgender closet” has been making the rounds on Christian news sites. Isthmus could find no source documenting this phenomenon in public schools in Wisconsin.
Altoona School Board member Hillarie Roth, another panelist, summarized the main objection expressed by many parents at the event.
“Schools today are apparently charged with being our children’s village. They feed and clothe children. They provide mental health services to children. They provide dental care to children. They are increasingly more called upon to address societal issues ranging from race to sexuality,” Roth says. “I asked you why, why are schools tasked with this rather than parents? life of their children?
Barely mentioned in Friday’s listening session on school issues was anything about teacher shortages, school funding or racial disparities. Johnson repeatedly mentioned he was not there to offer help to his constituents, saying “don’t count on the feds to solve this problem.” He encouraged participants to get involved in local school governance and run for school board seats.
“I didn’t know who was going to speak here today. I had no idea what they were going to say. I just came here to listen. I hope you listened. I hope the people of Wisconsin listened,” Johnson said while speaking to reporters after the event. “There is real concern about our public school system not listening to parents, not hearing their voices, not hearing their concerns. A lack of accountability should concern us all.