A proposed law requiring civics teachers in Wyoming public schools to present all races as equal, keep racial discrimination out of curricula and to laud meritocracy among people has cleared its first state legislative committee and now faces the Senate.
Senate File 130, the “Educational Freedom Act,” cleared the state Senate Education Committee by a 4-1 vote Wednesday and passed its first Senate vote with 19 senators in favor and four against Thursday. It must survive two more Senate votes to advance to the state House of Representatives.
Bill proponents and opponents said they agreed with the tenets in SF 130, but opponents characterized it as a top-down directive targeting diverse school districts.
African-American Bill Sponsor
The bill’s sponsor is an African-American woman, Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne.
Hutchings told the committee that factions throughout the nation spread “divisive, and I also believe destructive,” teaching to young people in a way that undermines the great gains Black people have made as Americans.
“We’re being told that our lives don’t matter; our history is just full of hatred, and I get that, I know that,” she added. “Our history is not the best history, but we’ve come a long way.”
Hutchings said she’d rather celebrate how far Black Americans have come than focus on racial divides.
Her bill would mandate that educators not discriminate against anyone on the basis of ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, disability or sex.
Some detractors pointed out that both the Wyoming and U.S. Constitutions already have equal protection clauses.
The bill also would encourage teaching on slavery, sexism, racial oppression and other past wrongs, but would mandate that teachers identify how those wrongs are inconsistent with Wyoming’s constitutional tenets.
It also would prevent educators from implementing programs that adversely reflect upon people due to their race.
Education As Political Movement
Both the Wyoming Education Association and Wyoming School Boards Association oppose SF 130.
The Wyoming Department of Education, an executive-branch department under the elected superintendent of public instruction, asked to remove language forbidding teaching from adversely reflecting on people because of their race, saying it’s an ambiguous directive.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said the bill circumvents the state education board’s curriculum-setting process, which involves experts and public input. He also said the bill dictates from the top down what Wyoming schools must teach and cuts out local, elected school boards.
“Over the last few years we’ve definitely moved as strongly as we can into dictating curriculum, dictating educational content and trying to tell people what they can and cannot teach, what books are acceptable and what books aren’t,” said Rothfuss.
The effect, he said, is that education is becoming politicized. He said the Legislature as a political body should move away from dictating curriculum and leave it to both the state board and local school boards.
“The idea that my children should be taught based on what 51% of the Legislature thinks at any given time is not a reasonable approach to educating students,” said Rothfuss.
Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Rancher, countered Rothfuss, saying that when culture wars crop up as “brushfires” and parents voice concerns about what their children are learning, it’s the Legislature’s job to provide some direction.
“We spend a lot of money on education and we’re also accountable to our constituents to make sure we’re upholding the values they elected us to represent,” said Biteman.
Biteman said while the state board’s process involves public comment, most parents don’t know about it and have never been involved in it.
Biteman voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor, as did Sens. Evie Brennan, R-Cheyenne, Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, and committee Chairman Charlie Scott, R-Casper.
Rothfuss was the lone no vote.