‘Parental Rights’ in Wisconsin | WI AB 510

By: Sam LaFrance

January 24, 2024

Wisconsin’s AB 510, which passed the state assembly last week, claims to advance “parental rights” in public schools – but it actually advances a much more censorial agenda. 

While most of the bill restates existing federal law protecting the rights of students and parents, one section goes much further. If this bill were to become law, school districts would be required to notify parents in advance of any “controversial subject” before it is taught or discussed in the classroom. And the drafters of the bill were gracious enough to define what exactly a controversial subject is: “a subject of substantial public debate, disagreement, or disapproval and includes instruction about gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identity, structural, systemic, or institutional racism, or content that is not age-appropriate.”

This clause and its litany of vaguely defined concepts is a sure recipe for censorship. Combined with an accompanying requirement that parents be able to opt their children out of any material that goes against their “religion or personal conviction,” it’s easy to see how this bill will impede public education in the state – not support it. 

We’ve already seen how a law that requires advance notification for vague categories of curricular topics has facilitated self-censorship in other states. Take Montana, for example, where teachers are required to notify parents of any content related to “human sexuality.” The law text is so vague about what this means that superintendents have told teachers that advance notice would be required for The Great Gatsby in English class and in some “units of study regarding civil rights or current events” in History class; the same letter from the superintendent suggests that art and theater classes “might have performances or products that have related themes.” In other words, even the schools aren’t sure what counts. 

In Tennessee, a similar law was used last year to pressure a librarian to cancel a Mother’s Day class about children from families without mothers. Advance notification was used not to opt a specific student out, but to lobby to get a lesson canceled for all.

In such an environment, the only way a teacher could avoid being buried by permission slips or thrown in hot water for accidentally referring to racial or sexual identities offhand is to avoid talking about those subjects at all.