Waukesha District says 'Rainbowland' by Miley Cyrus, Dolly Parton too controversial for first grade concert, but won't say why

Miley Cyrus was part of “Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party” on Dec. 31, 2022. A 2017 collaboration between the artists has been prohibited by the Waukesha School District for being "perceived as controversial."
Miley Cyrus was part of “Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party” on Dec. 31, 2022. A 2017 collaboration between the artists has been prohibited by the Waukesha School District for being "perceived as controversial."
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The song "Rainbowland," a duet by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton, has been disallowed from a first grade spring concert at Waukesha's Heyer Elementary School because of concerns it would be controversial, leaving students who had hoped to sing it, and their teacher, disappointed and confused.

Melissa Tempel, a first-grade dual language teacher at Heyer, said she understood the song might be part of the concert, so she played it for her students.

"It's such a fun song and they just immediately took to it," Tempel said. The students wanted to hear it "over and over" again.

Tempel later found out the proposed song had been dropped.

"We just really feel bad because the kids were excited about it," she said. "It's just really confusing. ... It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

A statement from the district said a different teacher had suggested the song to a music teacher for inclusion in the concert. The music teacher then checked with the principal, Mark Schneider. The statement said that Schneider went over the song "together and alongside" a central office administrator to see if it met the criteria of the district's Controversial Issues in the Classroom policy. They determined the song would be controversial.

The School Board was never involved, the district statement said.

School District of Waukesha Superintendent Jim Sebert told Fox 6 — which first reported the incident — that the decision was made based on "whether it was appropriate for the age and maturity level of the students" and because of "social or personal impacts" on them.

The district's decision can be seen as part of what has become a nationwide quarrel over education that appears to be as much about politics as about learning and child development. Divisions have erupted, along conservative and liberal lines, over how race, history and gender are taught, and how LGBTQ students and issues are treated in the schools.

Most recently, a Florida principal was forced out of her job in part because parents were not properly notified of sixth-grade art students viewing Michelango's "David." Some parents object to children that age seeing a nude form. The principal said one parent referred to the artistic masterpiece as pornographic.

Earlier this year, the Waukesha School Board passed a parental rights resolution that, in part, prohibits staff from referring to students by any name or pronoun other than the one consistent with the student's biological sex without written permission from their parents. The resolution also says students must use the bathroom and locker room facilities and participate in the sports consistent with the students' biological sex.

The district has not explained what was controversial

In the case of "Rainbowland," no administrators are explaining, at least publicly, what could be considered offensive.

When asked why she thought the song was pulled, Tempel told the Journal Sentinel: "I really don't know. There's so many different things it could be. We do have a controversial content policy within our district. And it's a little bit vague. So it's hard to know exactly what the district would say is controversial or not."

Tempel said she heard through the grapevine that part of the problem had to do with Miley Cyrus being the performer. After playing the wholesome role of Hannah Montana on Disney Channel, Parton's Goddaughter has courted controversy while continuing to grow in popularity.

"Musical artists often do things that are very controversial," Tempel said. "So that would be a really strange way to approach the controversial topic. How would you sing pretty much any song? Everybody's got something in their past that might be controversial."

In 2017, Parton told Taste of Country that the song — on Cyrus' 2017 album "Younger Now" — is "really about if we could love one another a little better or be a little kinder, be a little sweeter, we could live in rainbow land."

"It's really just about dreaming and hoping that we could all do better," she said. "It's a good song for the times right now."

Some of the lyrics Tempel especially appreciated were: "Wouldn't it be nice to live in paradise, where we're free to be exactly who we are. Let's all dig down deep inside, brush the judgment and fear aside. Make wrong things right and end the fight."

"That's like the core of what we teach at school or what anybody teaches," Tempel said. "You can be who you are, you should be proud of what you look like and how you learn. And that everyone has differences that we can all appreciate. And that no one's the same, so you shouldn't be afraid to be yourself around other people."

For the May concert, "Rainbowland" was replaced with "Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie." Other songs that will be performed at the show include "It's a Small World," "De Colores," "Here Comes the Sun" and "What a Wonderful World."

Tempel is a licensed bilingual elementary educator and a National Board Certified Teacher with a master’s degree in Cultural Foundations of Education. She co-edited two books, "Pencils Down" and "Rethinking Sexism, Gender and Sexuality" with the nonprofit organization Rethinking Schools, an equity and racial justice education publisher.

She said that moving forward, the district's policies need to be clarified.

For example, she said, she was told by her administrator that she's allowed to wear heart earrings that are rainbow colored, and also a trans pride pin. But she is not allowed to have a pride flag hanging in her classroom.

In 2021, in the same district, Summit View Elementary special education kindergarten teacher Sarah Whaley pinned an LGBTQ pride flag in her classroom. She refused to take it down after district officials requested she do so. As a result, the district suspended her for a day and removed the flag in her absence.

Drake Bentley and Alec Johnson contributed to this report.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin school axes Miley Cyrus, Dolly Parton Rainbowland from show