Critical Race Theory, biased political literature and human-sized litter boxes – Isthmus


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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. Those 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 widely debunked right-wing conspiracy theories. 

The listening session at the Holiday Inn Madison near East Towne Mall started with presentations by panelists invited by Johnson’s staff, including Holly Liska from Richland County. She began 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,” says Liska. “Where do we draw the line? We want to be inclusive, right. But we also must maintain a sense of reality.”

Liska’s reference has been debunked; no school is installing litter boxes. She also never cited what political literature her elementary-age child was asked to read. 

UW-Oshkosh English professor Duke Pesta was the panel’s expert on Critical Race Theory.

“We've been told that teaching grammar, punctuation and spelling is white supremacy,” says Pesta. “There's a whole toxic brew of things that are part of this, that are really radically lowering student achievement across the board.”

Critical Race Theory was brought up repeatedly by Republicans during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. The way the parents at Johnson’s Friday listening session used the term is a catch-all for “Marxist,” “radical-left” ideologies pushed by academic elites. 

“Every bad change in education over the last 50 years started with university professors,” says Pesta. “And don’t underestimate those teachers unions.” 

But Pesta’s evidence of how Critical Race Theory is taught in Wisconsin public schools mostly came from out-of-context examples from other states. The tenured professor did include 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 home school or pay for private school tuition out of their family budget.”

Snodgrass later deleted and apologized for the tweet. Another example was from an email sent by the Ozaukee County Democrats: “Public schools have the responsibility of the parents when their children are in their care.” 

A parent from Burlington cited comedian Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which chronicles his early life growing up in South Africa during apartheid, as evidence that Critical Race Theory is pushed on her kid. 

“It doesn’t take too many bullies to terrorize the population,” said Johnson. “And when those bullies are supported by the mainstream media and amplify what they say, it’s even easier to terrorize.” 

Johnson mostly listened to the panelists and testimony from parents in the audience during the two-hour event. He did want to hear more about one particular issue that has the Republican base outraged.

“I really don't understand this. When did all the issues of gender dysphoria [start] coming up? But again, my heart goes out to anybody, you know, suffering from that. We want to help them. Where did that all begin to be pushed so hard without parental involvement?” says Johnson. “We didn't really talk much about it. But it's kind of the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”  

Pesta blamed it on the creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979 and lumped gender identity in with Critical Race Theory. He cited a training slide for teachers from the Eau Claire school district that states: “parents are not entitled to know their kids’ identities. That knowledge has to be earned.” He also railed against so-called transgender closets. 

“You got this new phenomenon called transgender closets. A lot of schools, one just popped up in Oakland, California, where you build a closet in the school and you furnish it with all kinds of clothing from incredibly feminine to very masculine,” said Pesta. “And when kids show up, they're invited to go into the closet and change the clothes they were forced to wear by their parents, and do whatever they want.” 

In February, an article from The Post Millenial (a Canadian conservative news outlet), about one high school in Oakland creating a “transgender closet” made the rounds on Christian news websites. Isthmus couldn’t find any sources documenting this phenomenon in Wisconsin public schools. 

Altoona school board member Hillarie Roth, another panelist, summed up the main objection voiced by many parents at the event.

“Schools today are seemingly tasked with being the village for our children. They feed and clothe children. They provide mental health services for children. They provide dental care for children. They are increasingly called on to fix societal issues from race to sexuality,” says Roth. “I asked you why, why are schools being tasked with this rather than parents? Why are parents being forced out of their children's lives?”

Hardly mentioned in Friday’s listening session on school issues was anything about teacher shortages, school funding or racial disparities. Johnson repeatedly mentioned he wasn’t there to offer his constituents any help, saying “don’t look to the federal government to solve this problem.” He did encourage attendees to be involved in local school governance and run for school board seats.

“I didn’t know who's going to be speaking here today. I had no idea what they're going to say. I just came here to listen. I hope you listened. I hope Wisconsinites listened,” says Johnson while speaking with reporters after the event. “There’s some 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.”

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