Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder says most people in Wyoming want her to continue to fight the “educational establishment” that is attempting to move the American public education system away from the principles it was founded upon.
Speaking at the Western Conservatives Summit in Denver on Saturday, Degenfelder said that establishment is “failing us, badly.”
She believes that’s happening in lockstep with “the left,” which she said is working against making America stronger and a “more perfect union.”
“When conservatives and parents of all political stripes question the value proposition of public schooling or seek alternatives, we can hardly blame them,” Degenfelder said, referencing declining enrollment in public schools.
In her role, Degenfelder is responsible for overseeing all of the state’s K-12 public education institutions.
K-12 public education in Wyoming accounts for about 14% of the state's overall budget at about $1.7 billion for the current biennium. Of that, Wyoming funds public schools nearly $400 million with federal money making up the rest.
Wyoming’s public-school attendance has slowly declined since the 2015-2016 school year, down 2.6% at 91,640, since that time. Wyoming school attendance is down 9.1% since the all-time high enrollment of 100,757 in 1993-94.
Along with declining enrollment, school districts are reporting more difficulties filling openings for teachers. Entering the most recent school year, there were more than 700 openings in Wyoming’s schools.
In February, Degenfelder helped initiate a 25-member Teacher Retention and Recruitment Task Force.
Degenfelder said the act of challenging the “educational establishment” is equivalent to championing the public school system.
“If we can do that, it will be a lot easier to convince voters to approve school budgets or increase teacher salaries,” she said.
In 2010, salaries for Wyoming teachers were roughly 25% higher than surrounding states, according to a report presented to the Joint Education Committee in 2022.
But since that time Wyoming’s teacher salaries have remained relatively flat. In 2020, the average teacher wage in the state was only slightly higher than it was in 2012.
Degenfelder said there has been a long-term trend of academic achievement being deemphasized in American schools. She said teacher unions have contributed to this problem by resisting accountability and opposing competition.
Degenfelder wants public schools to focus on celebrating achievement and preparing youth for the workplace.
State Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, chair of the House Education Committee, said teachers should be praised more for the work they are doing, and that Wyoming’s test scores are much better than they may seem.
Degenfelder said “social promotion” and the desire to achieve equity has taken the place of performance in determining advancement, awarding students who haven’t performed basic proficiency in certain subject matters.
She mentioned how some schools in California have eliminated the traditional A-F grading scale and stopped penalizing bad behavior and missed deadlines in the classroom. Degenfelder said students who grow up in this system won’t last long in the private sector “and will soon become dependent on the rest of us.”
“This does not strengthen our nation, it weakens it,” she said.
Degenfelder also stressed that patriotism should be promoted in schools but clarified that this doesn’t mean she supports nativism or pushing an agenda that America’s history is flawless.
“That’s not what conservatives mean when we object to anti-American sentiments pervading our classrooms,” she said.
Degenfelder said it’s critical to teach about America’s mistakes to show the progress the country has made since events like the abolishment of slavery and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She said “the left” wants to ignore the representative democracy the founding fathers put in place that allows for progress.
“Our journey of becoming a more perfect union, that’s the story we should be telling in our schools,” she said.
Degenfelder also criticized the highly-controversial “1619 Project,” a long-form journalism endeavor presented by The New York Times and New York Times Magazine that focuses on subjects of slavery and the founding of the United States. She said the project, which has been derided by conservatives, sets out to establish a sense of guilt and hopelessness in students, dividing them by race, oppressors and victims.
“If the goal is to raise a new generation of leaders to preserve, protect and improve upon what has made America the greatest country in the world, I’ve got news for you: They are doing it wrong,” she said.
Degenfelder said those putting out publications like these aren’t looking out for students, but rather their own political agendas on future voters.
She supports discussion of current events and politics in the classroom as long as there is respectful debate and a learning environment.
“It should not cloak political agendas in lesson plans,” she said, drawing a short applause. “It should not presume the righteousness of one side over another. It should not ignore important context in order to obscure the whole story.”
Degenfelder also said she believes schools free from racism and other stigmas are the foundation of community and an orderly society.
She believes public schools are often becoming places of social experimentation that divide, rather than unite, students, a phenomenon she describes as fraying of the social fabric.
Degenfelder mentioned two hot-button issues across the current “culture wars” debates. She said there are books containing “graphic sexual depictions” in public schools. Many of these books have been defended as providing valuable education about LGBTQ concepts.
Although she said members of the LGBTQ community matter and should be treated with respect and dignity, Degenfelder also said transgender women participating in athletics challenge the fundamental meaning of safe and fair sports.
“If you object to any of this, then you will be met with slurs and protests,” Degenfelder said of what’s become the socially acceptable reaction to people who question these policies. “You will be intimidated and you will be silenced. I will not be silenced.”
To The Right
During her 2022 campaign, Degenfelder was seen by many as slightly more moderate than her two Republican challengers.
She made pledges to address Wyoming’s teacher shortage, partner with local industries to prepare students for the workplace and keep the federal government out of the classroom — away from radical political agendas and overregulation.
In recent months, Degenfelder has taken a firm conservative stance on a number of policy issues such as transgender participation in sports, school choice and parental control in schools.
She also said previously that she supports school choice, the concept of parents using their children’s allotted educational dollars to follow those students if they attend a charter or private school.
Last week, Degenfelder was criticized by the Wyoming Democratic Party for attending the Summit. On Monday, Wyoming Education Association President Grady Hutcherson condemned the comments she made at the Western Conservative Summit, calling them an example of “furthering national rhetoric for political gain.”
"We were incredibly disheartened to see our state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction disparaging public schools in what looks like blatant political stunting at the expense of Wyoming students and educators,” Hutcherson said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.