Wyoming’s top education official is concerned about school districts hiding things from parents.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder has dispatched what she calls a “bold action plan” outlining her priorities for Wyoming’s public education systems.
Empowering parents and eliminating political bias are the first goals listed in her plan, released last week.
“We want to make sure our kids have a well-rounded, factual education free from political agendas or bias,” said Degenfelder in an interview with Cowboy State Daily.
Critical Race Theory, said Degenfelder, is a “political bias” she hopes to remove from the state’s classrooms.
The controversial curriculum asserts that racial bias is inherent in many parts of Western society, including its institutions. It is often associated with the social-political Left.
Degenfelder said she hasn’t seen “specific instances” of public curricula advancing politically right-leaning dogmas, but that she disagrees with political biases in the classroom in general.
“If there’s any type of political bias in education, our American education system fails,” she said.
Degenfelder hopes to create a statewide transparency website on which parents can review curriculum materials and report their concerns. She described it as an interactive hub for the whole state.
Wyomingites have formed at least one school transparency forum: The Sweetwater #1 District Accountability Facebook page seeks to keep parents informed of issues in the Rock Springs-based school district.
A set of parents is now suing that school district in federal court for allegedly helping their teen socially gender transition without their knowledge. The parents, Sean and Ashley Willey, say the district has been keeping them in the dark while calling their high school daughter by a male name and pronouns.
Degenfelder said she’s meeting Tuesday with the Willeys to learn more.
“For me, to have one centralized location where the average taxpayer, the average parent can access their school district and the curriculum that’s being taught there, is about rebuilding that trust; that relationship, by having full transparency,” said Degenfelder.
Speaking of the Willeys’ lawsuit specifically, Degenfelder said she doesn’t know all the facts yet, but she finds the parents’ claim that they cannot access all of their daughter’s health records “deeply troubling.”
She’s taking a staunch position on parental rights in education.
“I’m always a person who believes (in) less government intervention,” she said. “I truly believe in (parents’) ability to make those decisions.”
Degenfelder said transparency could ease numerous issues bursting into controversy in schools: mature-themed library books, curricula, parental control and transgender label policies for kids.
The Natrona County and Laramie County No. 1 school districts had graphic library book controversies this school year, and school board members are still grappling with proposed changes to their libraries’ contents or policies.
Degenfelder said she and her advisors are examining “best practices” and state guidance for districts, but she also doesn’t want to infringe on local control.
“They can make their own (decisions), but we want to make sure they have those resources,” she said.
She doesn’t know what the guidance will look like.
Considering ridding its library of certain books in recent months, the Natrona County School District hesitated, since there are First Amendment legal issues limiting the removal of books once they’re in a school library.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that school officials can remove “pervasively vulgar” books to protect kids, but cannot remove books because they dislike or disagree with them.
In Natrona County, community members who support removing or limiting access to the books in question say they’re pervasively vulgar, whereas community members defending the books say the “book banners” simply disagree with their contents.
Degenfelder plans to compose cabinets of parents, teachers, students and community members to advise her on these issues and on developments within schools.
“(We’re) making sure we hear the voices of those individuals that are so integral in our education system,” she said.
North Dakota has a student cabinet in its superintendent’s office.
Time To Compete
Degenfelder is a school-choice advocate.
The Wyoming Democratic Party denounced this stance April 12, saying in a Twitter post that Degenfelder stands to hurt students and traditional public schools.
“It’s appalling to see our Supt. Of PUBLIC Instruction prioritizing ‘school choice’ in her first 90 days,” reads the post. “Charter schools funnel money from our PUBLIC schools into private hands. Our kids deserve better than Degenfelder’s vision for their education.”
Two of three newly opened approved charter schools in Wyoming are drawing from curricula built by privately funded Hillsdale College.
The college provides learning materials for free to its K-12 charter schools, according to its website. A Hillsdale representative could not be reached for comment by publication time.
Degenfelder countered, noting that charter schools are public schools.
Though the charter schools are approved by a state panel under new Wyoming laws, they draw money from the local school districts into which they graft, forcing traditional public schools to compete for attendance-based public money.
“Choices are so important, and they improve outcomes for all,” said Degenfelder. “I know and believe that to be true, as an economist.”
Degenfelder grew up in Casper and attended its public school system. She said she’s a “proud product” of that system and believes there’s “room for both” charter and traditional public schools.
Welding, Accounting, Politicking
Wyoming high school graduates are short on civics and financial literacy, businesses have told Degenfelder.
“This is something we can bolster,” she said, adding that she’s “very passionate” about civics education in particular and wants students to understand “the founding principles that built the country in which they live.”
A former regulatory affairs manager for oil and gas company Morning Star Partners, Degenfelder has said in the past that schools need to get in touch with businesses’ vocational needs so that Wyoming students can enter the state’s workforce when they graduate.
This theme echoes in her recent strategic plan. It seeks to “increase participation and support in Career and Technical Student Organizations,” and “improve … workforce opportunities for students.”
Reach Clair McFarland at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com