The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wis. school blocks 1st-graders from singing ‘Rainbowland’ in spring show

Dolly Parton, left, and Miley Cyrus perform at the Grammy Awards in 2019. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
4 min

Though their spring concert was still weeks away, the 24 first-graders in Melissa Tempel’s class had already begun practicing how they would belt out the lyrics of “Rainbowland.”

The 2017 song by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton “just fit perfectly” with the show’s themes of acceptance, peace and diversity that the class had recently learned about during Black History Month, said Tempel, a dual-language teacher at Heyer Elementary School in Waukesha, Wis.

At every practice, the children’s faces lit up and their bodies grooved to the catchy, fast-paced song, she said.

However, last week Tempel had to tell her students that they wouldn’t be allowed to sing “Rainbowland” at the May 2 concert after school administrators determined the song could be deemed controversial.

Why the song was found contentious is still unclear.

In a statement to The Washington Post, School District of Waukesha Superintendent James Sebert said the decision was made in accordance with district policy, which defines a controversial issue as one that “may be the subject of intense public argument, disagreement or disapproval,” “may have political, social or personal impacts” or “is likely to arouse both support and opposition in the community.” According to the policy, controversial topics can be introduced in the classroom if they are appropriate for students’ age levels, encourage open-mindedness and don’t cause disruptions or “tend to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”

Teachers say parents, laws are changing how they teach race and gender

For Tempel, it’s hard to imagine how “such a lovely song with a universal theme” ran afoul of school policy.

“There was really no reason for us to think that it wouldn’t be allowed,” she said. “I mean, it’s a Dolly Parton song! And we love Dolly.”

The idea to perform a song that describes a utopia “where we’re free to be exactly who we are” came in a collaboration with the school’s music teacher. Together, he, Tempel and her co-teacher crafted a set list that included Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and the Spanish song “De Colores.”

But given the Waukesha school district’s recent policies banning pride flags in the classroom and prohibiting teachers from wearing rainbow lanyards, the music teacher checked in with administrators about using “Rainbowland.”

Tempel said administrators took issue with the song and its suggested replacement: “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog’s anthem about hope. But after backlash from parent groups, the school decided to keep “Rainbow Connection.”

According to Sebert’s statement, “The principal asked the music teacher to look for a different song. The song selected was Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog.”

But for parents and teachers in the city, located about 15 miles from Milwaukee, “Rainbowland” represents hope and positivity — not a political issue.

“I’d like to hear the Waukesha School Board admit their specific reasons for labeling the song as potentially controversial,” said Samantha Siebenaller, whose child is in Tempel’s class. “ … I feel confident that their problem is with what they think Miley Cyrus, Dolly Parton and rainbows represent — not about the message of the song.”

A school district briefly opted out of a free-meals program, citing a desire to return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’

Tempel said the “absolute and lifesaving need of accepting everyone for who they are” drove her to post about the “Rainbowland” decision on Twitter, where it got about 190,000 views and over 1,500 likes.

“This is so much more than a decision to not sing a song,” she said. “You don’t realize the impact these policies have until they hit you over the nose.”

By Tuesday night, “Rainbowland” had risen to the 51st spot on Apple Music’s Top 100 chart. After the song was released in 2017, Cyrus told People: “It’s about all these different races and genders and religions, if we all did come together to create and said, ‘Hey, we’re different, that’s awesome, let’s not change to be the same, but let’s come together anyway.’ ”