Lawmakers Renew Bipartisan Effort To Require Holocaust Education In Wisconsin Schools

A bipartisan bill that would require Wisconsin schools to incorporate lessons about the Holocaust and other genocides into middle and high school social studies classes is moving forward at the state Capitol. 

Under the proposal, public schools and schools in the state’s private school voucher program would have to include lessons on the Holocaust and other genocides at least once between fifth and eighth grade and once in high school. The bill would also require the state superintendent of public instruction to include the Holocaust and other genocides in model academic standards for social studies and to develop model lessons and materials on the subject for teachers. 

Supporters of the bill acknowledge many Wisconsin teachers already have lessons on the Holocaust. They argue putting a requirement in state law will ensure continuity and consistency. 

“It would ensure that every student is getting educated about the Holocaust and other genocides,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, one of the bill’s sponsors. “This is critically important, because if we don’t know our history, we are bound to repeat it.”

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, at least a dozen states have passed laws mandating Holocaust education.

Supporters of the proposal also cite a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Wisconsin. A study released by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation last year found anti-Semitic incidents increased 55 percent between 2018 and 2019 and jumped 329 percent since 2015. 

Proponents also point to a 2018 study that found 22 percent of millennials hadn’t heard of or weren’t sure if they had heard of the Holocaust. The study was commissioned by a New York-based research and political consulting firm.

Republican Rep. Jon Plumer, R-Lodi, cited that “rising lack of awareness” as part of his reasoning for sponsoring the bill. 

“Ensuring that our children are taught about the atrocities of that period in history is essential, especially as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles further every year,” Plumer said in an e-mailed statement.

The bill is being sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

In written testimony presented to the Senate’s education committee last month, University of Wisconsin-Madison student Sarah Gesner said lessons about the Holocaust at her Racine high school spurred greater awareness of bullying and prejudice in the community. 

“After learning about the horrors and indignities of the Holocaust, I can speak not only to a shift in knowledge among my classmates over the years — many of whom were unaware of the Holocaust at all before this unit was taught — but also a shift in their behavior,” Gesner said. “In school and throughout the greater community, my classmates became more aware of prejudice, of bullying, and of how devastating those kinds of oppressive behaviors can be.”

No groups have registered opposition to the bill.

The proposal was also introduced during the last legislative session. It was approved unanimously by the state Assembly, but failed to pass the Senate before lawmakers adjourned for the year. A number of bills did not pass in the Senate last spring after the Legislature’s schedule was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The renewed proposal was approved by the Senate education committee last week. It has yet to be voted on in an Assembly committee.