State superintendent calls Republicans war on schools in fiery speech

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In her first annual State of Education address, Wisconsin’s new public school principal, Jill Underly, did not hold back. “We are now failing a generation of children,” Underly said. “And we are failing our state by jeopardizing the economic future of Wisconsin.”

Standing in front of the bust of Fighting Bob La Follette in the Capitol Rotunda, after a student sang the national anthem and the required thanks from various educators and officials were removed, Underly launched into a speech that sounded like more to a call to arms. that the usual trivial annual report of the State Department of the ed.

Drawing on Wisconsin’s progressive history and praising the state for being a leader in education, Underly admitted to standing “on the shoulders of those who came before us,” then criticized Republican legislative leaders for their “myopia” in passing a budget that refused to spend part of a historic surplus on schools.

“It wasn’t that long ago that the Wisconsin budget invested in our public schools,” Underly noted. “We have seen the impact of this on children who graduated from our schools before 2010.” But over the past decade, the state has failed to make up for budget cuts made during the Great Recession. . As a result, “in 2020 we graduated and a whole generation of children who have seen nothing but austerity in funding our schools – who have seen years of disinvestment in their future.”

“This, folks,” she said, “is the state of education in Wisconsin.

Calling on the people of Wisconsin to “stand up to those who want to use our schools to distract and divide our communities”. Under-mentioned in rash cases of harassment and intimidation of school board members across the state, spurred on by conservative groups and Republican donors who have fueled anger over school mask policies, school funding and the anti-racism agenda.

“I urge us to stay focused on what unites us instead of being drawn into the divide,” Underly said. “Our kids do just that by focusing on their shared desire to be with their friends, to learn and to protect each other. And it’s time for adults to step up too.

Describing public schools and libraries as “the common thread that unites us,” Underly noted that “the fabric is unraveling.” The vitriol in public attacks on teachers and school officials is harming children, she added.

The rage unleashed in the Trump era, stoked by Republicans at the national and state levels to motivate voters for the former president, is now focused on a soft target – local school boards. Across Wisconsin, they suffered mini-versions of the Jan.6 attack on the United States Capitol. In Kenosha, a crowd blocked a meeting and forced a vote to drastically cut salaries for school board members, while forcing them to attend meetings in person. In Eau Claire, a school council meeting was canceled after some attendees refused to wear masks. Recall efforts targeting school board members to vote to maintain mask requirements and e-learning during the pandemic have proliferated statewide. And members of school boards from different districts of the state leave this fall, saying they and their families had been threatened by angry members of the public.

In this context, Underly ironically noted a Republican legislative proposal for a civic requirement in Wisconsin schools.

“If you want a stronger civic education program, you won’t meet any resistance from me,” she said. “Perhaps this would ultimately result in a future legislature that understands the complex legal and societal issues facing our families and communities. Perhaps it would even teach the legislature, which has been busy controlling local control with a series of curricular mandates, the separate roles of state and local governments. “Most of all,” Underly added, “maybe it will encourage us to be better citizens, to hold our lawmakers accountable and to show our children what it means to be civically, but also civilly engaged. ”

Underly endorsed the call for civility published by John Ashley, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“Our children matter the most, our public schools matter the most,” Underly said. “They are the thread that binds our communities together, and we should support each other instead of tearing down those who dare to show leadership during a crisis.”

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Indeed, by targeting teachers, schools and school board members, conservative “freedom fighters” have torn off the mask of Republican politics in more ways than one, exposing the sheer nihilism of Trumpism, the division. and destruction. What is at stake, as Underly skillfully put it in his speech, is our common sense of community, decency, and civilization itself.

“For democracy and civility to thrive, we need our public schools,” she said, pulling it all together. Our public schools and libraries are a valuable resource, both for the role they play in unifying and uplifting communities, in nurturing our future and in giving us a sense of purpose, purpose, pride and shared values. All of this is currently under attack.

In a video statement released shortly after his Underly address ended, Governor Tony Evers, himself a former public school principal, released a video statement praising Underly and reinforcing his message that “our schools are the heart of our community “.

President Robin Vos, unsurprisingly, rebuffed his strong criticism of his leadership with his own statement. “The Democrats’ singular goal of putting more money into schools is not a winning strategy for our children,” Vos said sourly. “We need to look to improve the way they are taught and why so many students struggle with the basics – reading, writing and arithmetic.” He called for more assessments and “allowing parents to be part of the conversation.”

By conversation, Vos probably means this week’s audience featuring national conservative activists poking fun at so-called critical race theory, or mobs that threatened school board members.

“Unfortunately, politics is too much of the conversation around schools,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Threats against school board members, who are our neighbors, who have families of their own, who thought they were serving their community and signed up to help our children, go way beyond the line,” he adds. she does.

No wonder many of these school board members quit when everything got too bad. But, says DuBois Bourenane, the bullying has caused some people to quit, “others have become even more deeply committed to doing what’s best for our students and our communities, and are using this moment to shake up those who are asleep. too long for a decades-old assault on our public schools.

One of those people who seize the moment is Jill Underly.

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