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‘Rainbowland’ teacher firing is another example of extremism on Wisconsin school boards

Conservative attacks on education are doing real harm, advocates say.

By Will Fritz - October 12, 2023
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Dolly Parton, left, and Miley Cyrus perform
Dolly Parton, left, and Miley Cyrus perform "Jolene" at the 61st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 2019. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)

Melissa Tempel was fired from the Waukesha School District in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in July after nearly five years of teaching a Spanish/English dual-language first grade class.

Her crime? Criticizing her school administration’s decision to ban a song from a class concert she was organizing. Her first graders had been slated to sing “Rainbowland” by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton. But the administration, concerned the song “could be deemed controversial,” wouldn’t allow it. 

“My first graders were so excited to sing Rainbowland for our spring concert but it has been vetoed by our administration. When will it end?” reads the March 21 tweet from Tempel.

Her school’s spring break took place not long after she posted that tweet, and when Tempel returned to school on April 3, she said, she was met by her principal, a school board member, district administrators and police and was told she was being placed on administrative leave. A few months later, the Waukesha school board voted to terminate her employment.

The school district used its “controversial issues policy” to justify the ban, Tempel says in a lawsuit she filed against the Waukesha School District in September.

The song’s lyrics include “Where you and I go hand in hand together (let’s do it together)/ Chase dreams forever/ I know there’s gonna be a greener land/ We are rainbows, me and you/ Every color, every hue/ Let’s shine on/ Together, we can start living in a Rainbowland.”

Tempel says the song contains no explicit mention of anything that could remotely be deemed controversial.

“It’s literally nothing to do with being gay,” Tempel told the American Independent Foundation. “Even if it did, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it was just so mind-boggling.”

And, Tempel said, even if there were some way to justify the effective ban of the song, there’s very little she can see as justification for the district’s reaction to her tweet.

“I had no previous disciplinary action. I had no warnings, no write-ups, nothing like that,” she said. “So for them to jump from nothing to being fired for tweeting is a pretty big jump.”

Tempel’s lawsuit against the Waukesha School District alleges her firing is the culmination of the superintendent’s and the school board’s efforts to censor views they do not agree with.

She claims in the lawsuit that the school board’s long-held “controversial issues policy” has been inconsistently applied by the superintendent and the school board. One example, Tempel argues in the suit, is that district administrators prohibited Gay-Straight Alliance locker signs in schools but allowed “Students for Life” and “Thin Blue Line” signs to be displayed in common areas.

Education advocates say Tempel’s firing and other events in the district since 2021 are indicative of the larger wave of censorship and extremism that has swept schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere in recent years.

Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, tied what happened with Tempel to book bans and other instances of extremist actions that have taken root in some school systems in recent years, such as attacks on “Critical Race Theory.”

”All of this becomes kind of muddled and confused and is designed, in fact, as a sort of collective set of offenses to just chip away at people’s trust and confidence in our public schools and plant seeds of doubt and distrust amongst parents and caregivers that our public schools might not have our kids best interests at hand,” DuBois Bourenane said

What happened in Waukesha won’t stay in Waukesha, said Brian Juchems, co-executive director of GSAFE, an organization that works to create safe schools for LGBTQ+ youth in Wisconsin.

“There’s school districts around the state that look to Waukesha to see, what are they doing? What can we get away with? What steps should we take next to appease certain segments of our community?” Juchems said.

What can be done about it, though?

“Attend a school board meeting and attend more school board meetings,” Juchems said. “There’s well-funded efforts to get people out to school boards and to get people at school boards to yell at them, to lob false claims against them, and basically make it very difficult for schools to engage in the best practices that we know support all students. And we’re losing the battle if we’re not showing up at school board meetings.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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