MADISON, Wisconsin — Wisconsin Republicans moved closer Tuesday to making it harder to force public schools to drop American Indian nicknames, pushing a bill that would raise the bar for complaints through the state Senate and on to Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker, a Republican, has remained noncommittal on the measure. His spokesman has said only that the governor would evaluate the bill when it reaches his desk.
Senate Republicans passed the bill 17-16 after a raw debate that saw Democrats brand the measure a "return to darkness" that institutionalizes racism in schools.
"It took us a long time to overcome slavery and we still struggle to overcome the N-word. I hope it makes you uncomfortable when you hear me say it. I wish we were as uncomfortable with savages, redskins and Indians," said Sen. Lena Taylor, a black Milwaukee Democrat.
Republicans insisted the bill is about establishing a fairer process for deciding whether race-based nicknames are appropriate.
"We have a bill here today ... that provides fairness, provides balance for our school districts. This bill really has nothing to do with discrimination," said Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, the bill's chief Senate sponsor.
A 2010 state law requires the state Department of Public Instruction to hold a hearing on a school's race-based nickname if the agency receives a single complaint. The school must prove the nickname doesn't promote discrimination. DPI then decides whether the name must go.
The department so far has ordered Osseo-Fairchild School District to drop its Chieftains nickname, Berlin High School to ditch its Indians moniker and the Mukwonago Area School District to drop its Indians nickname. Mukwonago officials have refused to do away with the nickname, however, saying they've used it for more than 80 years and it would cost around $100,000 to change it.
Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, who represents a portion of Mukwonago, introduced a bill in August that requires a complainant to collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the school district's population to trigger a state review. Complainants would have to prove discrimination at hearing. The Department of Administration, which is controlled by the governor, would make the final call on whether the name must go, rather than DPI, which is run by an elected superintendent. The bill also would invalidate all previous DPI orders forcing schools to drop their nicknames.
The Republican-controlled Assembly passed the bill last month, making the Senate the last stop before the measure could go to Walker. Republicans control the Senate 18-15, but Democrats staved off a vote by railing against the bill for nearly four hours.
Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said complainants will struggle to collect enough signatures to trigger reviews. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, held up a photo of Mukwonago's logo, an American Indian man in a headdress, and called it a caricature. Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said adults who remain attached to their high school days are pushing the bill.
"I refer to them as glory day guys. These are people who can't let go," he said.
Lazich reiterated the bill is about leveling the playing field for schools.
"This bill," she said, "is not about racism."
Sen. Dale Schultz, a Richland Center moderate, joined Democrats in voting against the bill. But even with Schultz on their side, Democrats still fell one vote short of stopping the proposal.
Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian who chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association's Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force, said she hoped the governor has more sense than legislators and will reject the bill.
"This clearly is about race. You can tell some people know that and some people don't," Munson said. "There's a lot of white privilege going on."