UW System critical race theory restrictions voted on by Republicans

Republican legislators are setting their sights on the University of Wisconsin System, voting Tuesday on bills likely headed for vetoes.

However, the bills will give the GOP talking points on the campaign trail heading into the November election.

The proposals would discourage the teaching of so-called critical race theory; eliminate legal immunity for campus administrators who interfere with freedom of speech; allow students to swap diversity courses for a class on the U.S. Constitution; and guarantee students would get housing and meal plan fees back if campuses close.

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Here's a closer look at the bills:

Critical race theory

This bill originally would have prohibited UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System leaders from allowing instructors to teach critical race theory, a term for a scholarly movement developed in the 1970s that focuses on the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination in U.S. history and modern society. The bill also pertains to training for employees related to the concept.

The Assembly universities committee amended the bill in December to remove the prohibition on teaching the concepts, tweaking the language to say instructors can't force students to "affirm, adopt or adhere" to any of the elements of critical race theory. The amendment imposes a 5% reduction in state aid for any violator institution.

The Senate passed the bill on a party line 21-12 vote, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against it. The Assembly was scheduled to approve it later Tuesday.

Democratic opponents said the bill was racist and an attempt to politicize the teaching of difficult moments in U.S. history.

"It's stirring fear and encouraging silence," said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin Capitol in Madison

Republican supporters said the measure was designed to stop schools from indoctrinating students into believing that one sex or race is better or worse than another.

"We seem to be making a big deal out of race constantly," said Republican Sen. Kathy Bernier, telling a story about how white people in Eau Claire embraced Hank Aaron when he played for the minor league baseball team there in 1952. "It's hurting our kids. It's hurting us. It's hurting our society. Let's point out the positives: Hank and the little white girl sitting on the porch holding hands."

The proposal is part of a broader national GOP push to block critical race theory instruction ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Oklahoma and Texas have banned critical race theory concepts from public schools. Kansas lawmakers are considering similar legislation. So are legislators in Ohio.

Freedom of expression

This proposal would eliminate legal immunity for UW and technical college administrators who deprive anyone of their freedom of expression. The move would allow people to sue administrators who bar conservative speakers on their campuses.

Republicans have long maintained that liberal-leaning colleges discourage or don't allow speakers with conservative viewpoints to appear on campus and permit left-leaning students to shout them down when they do visit.

"We need diversity and we need to learn opposing views," the bill's chief Assembly sponsor, Republican Rep. Clint Moses, said Tuesday. "This bill does just that. It allows for opposing views."

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UW-Madison officials said in written comments that they support free speech. They said the bill is problematic because employees acting in good faith to protect public safety at events could get sued.

The Assembly passed the bill 60-34. It goes next to the state Senate.

Diversity classes

The legislation would allow UW System students who are required to take a course in diversity or ethnic studies as part of their general education courses to take a class on the U.S. Constitution instead.

"Forcing students to complete classes that view racial and cultural conflict through only one specific lens will not achieve the stated objective," the measure's chief Senate sponsor, Duey Stroebel, said in written remarks to the Senate universities committee this month. "By contrast, America’s founding documents show the great aspiration for equality and opportunity for all, alongside where America fell short of its aspirations."

UW-Stevens Point Associate Dean of General Education and Honors Shanny Luft submitted written remarks saying the bill would leave students less prepared to work in diverse environments.

UWM Student Union

Democrats on the Assembly floor Tuesday railed against the bill. Rep. Lisa Subeck called the bill "appalling." Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde, who is Black, questioned why students can learn about the history of the United States but not about 400 years of slavery.

"We don't want to hurt people's feelings," he said. "We want to make sure we literally whitewash history in the state of Wisconsin."

The Assembly ultimately passed the bill 60-34. The Senate was expected to take it up Tuesday evening.

Housing and meal fees

The bill would require all UW institutions to return housing and meal fees on a prorated basis to students who can't access the campus for more than a week. Getting barred from campus for misconduct wouldn't qualify a student for a return.

UW campuses closed in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic seized the country. According to a fiscal estimate from UW System, schools refunded $62 million in room and board fees to students then.

The Assembly approved the bill on a voice vote with no debate. It goes next to the Senate.

Do these bills have a chance?

The measures would appear to have a good chance of passing the Legislature. But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools superintendent who served on the UW Board of Regents, will almost certainly veto all of them.

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