Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder testified for a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Education & the Workforce on Oct. 19, 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of U.S. House subcommittee stream)

Megan Degenfelder, Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction, recently testified at a congressional hearing aimed at “combating graphic, explicit content in school libraries.”


But did she travel to Washington primarily in her capacity as the state’s top public school official, or as a politician raising money for her next campaign?

It’s a distinction that should be important to voters, who will likely be asked in three years whether Degenfelder deserves a second term.

Politicians routinely fundraise while in office. What is striking about this brazen solicitation, though, is that Degenfelder passed the proverbial hat immediately after tethering herself to a national political wedge movement that claims to protect kids from books that local officials and librarians have approved in Wyoming schools.

Local control — the Jeffersonian idea that the government closest to the people governs best — was, for generations, sacrosanct in Wyoming politics. The idea that one of the state’s top elected officials would dare be seen in D.C. advocating for the will of distant politicos over that of local school boards was once laughable. Yet here we are. And it’s not funny. 

“I’ve just finished testifying before Congress in Washington that we must safeguard our children from graphic and sexually explicit content in school libraries,” Degenfelder wrote in her fundraising email. “I need your support to continue this critical fight. 

“Your contribution of $50, $100, $250, $500, or even $1,000 can help us make a difference in our fight for Wyoming’s future,” the email stated. 

How will political donations of any size to an official who isn’t even up for re-election until 2026 make a difference in how Degenfelder does her job now? Will her vow to “safeguard” students result in more book bans?

Private donations from individuals and groups won’t be used by the Wyoming Department of Education to ban books. But Degenfelder can use public funds, and her sway as superintendent, to support policy and legislation that essentially eliminates local control.

This is another example of a Republican politician using a hot-button social issue to stir up the party’s far-right base, in this case, to censor or suppress books. It’s not something Degenfelder even hinted to voters last year.

Degenfelder told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education that she respects local control in government, including “the duly elected school board authority over books and curriculum.” 

That’s the tone she set on the campaign trail in 2022 when she tried to contrast her leadership style with incumbent Brian Schroeder. The former head of a Cody Christian school, Schroeder was appointed interim superintendent by Gov. Mark Gordon when SPI Jillian Balow left the state to take a similar job in Virginia.

Schroeder courted the far-right vote, inviting several members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus to appear with him at a rally against “the sexualization of children” in Cheyenne last year. They eagerly joined Moms for Liberty to bash public schools for having alleged “pornography” on library and classroom shelves. Their chief complaint by far was LGBTQ+-themed books.

Schroeder’s remarks made Degenfelder sound moderate. During her campaign, she weighed in on the Natrona County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees’ review of two books with LGBTQ+ content, saying they were unsuitable for minors. But she made clear that decisions about library materials should be made at the district level, not the state.

Schroeder talked about the issue in terms of good vs. evil, where the state chooses parents and groups with the right morals to decide what books are available to all students.

Candidate Degenfelder said parents’ voices were being silenced in classrooms because the state’s public schools have lost track of Wyoming and American values “like innovation and hard work.” But nothing about books.

Wyoming communities, she explained, have many wide-ranging needs that can’t be met with a one-size-fits-all model. “What it comes down to [is] rolling up our sleeves and working for local control,” she said.

After taking office, Degenfelder changed her tune. She appointed a committee of parents, librarians, school administrators and school board members to work with the WDE to develop statewide “library guidance” for local school districts. 

To be released Nov. 1, the material will include sample definitions and “model policies.” It was necessary to intervene, Degenfelder told the congressional panel, because “many districts do not have a robust system or policies in place for appropriate library materials, and they need support from the state level.”

Translation: Those silly parents in Casper and Lander and Rock Springs just don’t know what’s best for their families or their communities. Luckily the government in Cheyenne is here to help.

“The issue of sexually explicit material in schools must be addressed so that we can return our focus to the fundamental purpose of education and regain trust in public education,” Defenfelder testified.

But is it support she wants to offer or to tell districts what they must do? Will these model policies be suggestions from the WDE, or eventually mandated by extremist lawmakers who incorrectly believe it’s their job to determine what books school districts make available to students?

Degenfelder sees a lot she doesn’t like in the public school system she oversees. What she told Congress sounds much like what Schroeder might say about how books that offend some readers are out of line with patriotic values.

“Too often today our public schools are places for social experimentation that serve to divide rather than unite us,” she told Congress. “It is our goal in Wyoming to raise a new generation of leaders to preserve, protect, defend and improve upon what has made America the greatest nation on the planet.”

PEN America, which issues annual reports about book bans, found that in the 2022-23 school year, 30% of the titles removed from libraries were books about race, racism or featured characters of color. Meanwhile, 29% had LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

When state lawmakers try to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history and LGBTQ+ identities, it undermines the freedom of students to read, learn and think for themselves. It also greatly distorts the story of America and frustrates many teachers who are reconsidering their chosen profession.

“Teaching history and government right now is so bad I would not wish it on my worst enemy,” one teacher told University of Wyoming College of Education researchers for a teacher retention study. “Parents want us to teach revisionist history where there was no racism, and the parents act like bullies about it. If they shout loudly enough, they usually get their way. I had never been accused of bias in 20 years until last year. People have lost their minds.”

The Freedom Caucus liked what it heard from Degenfelder, praising her testimony on Facebook. “The people of Wyoming will not be gaslit into allowing pornography in our public education system,” the group’s post stated.

The Freedom Caucus is fundraising to enact an education agenda that suppresses books, opposes “Drag Story Time,” LGBTQ+ “history classes” and Critical Race Theory. The latter is taught at law schools, not Wyoming K-12 schools.

An email signed by Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), caucus chairman, said the “woke mob” of liberal Democrats and “out of touch academic quacks from D.C.” have gone too far attempting “to pervert the minds of our children.”

These efforts are “anti-Christian, overly sexualized, American-hating [and] have gone far beyond the point of no return,” he added. “And it is time we held them accountable by taking back our state’s right to create our own vision of what a proper education looks like.”

Degenfelder called on local schools and leaders to remember that “they cannot step beyond the bounds of the rights of parents.”

Do parents have the ultimate authority to decide what books their children can read? Of course they do. It can be accomplished with policies that allow parents to opt-out if they want to prevent their child from accessing specific books. 

But I hope when Degenfelder announces the model library policies, she emphasizes that one parent doesn’t have the right to make such decisions for all families. It’s another parental boundary a superintendent must respect.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Having spent 38 years in a variety of successful Wyoming K-12 leadership roles, I was understandably concerned during the last election campaign as I looked at the various candidates for the office of State Superintendent of Public Education, and I had expressed that concern in a pre-election Facebook note. None of the seven candidates had ever worked full time in a Wyoming K-12 system, and in their speeches during the campaign it was obvious none had a clear understanding of the reality of what occurs in all of our districts throughout our state’s school district classrooms and offices. This present scenario is just another example of unqualified persons making poor decisions about policies with which they have only minimal understanding.
    The office of State Superintendent should not be a political position; much better but requiring a constitutional amendment would have the State Superintendent hired by our State Board of Education, just as is done in each local district. Our State Board is composed of a number of individuals representing a variety of specific kinds of individuals and groups having active and non-partisan commitment toward public education, each having been appointed by the governor as a vacancy occurs. Our present Election doesn’t guarantee that a real educator attains the position of State Superintendent; until now I have known personally all the previous office holders and been generally satisfied, since 1972, that their focus was non-political as it should be. But we are now apparently also being subjected to more of that bright red wave engulfing numerous major portions of our society, and to those of us who are or have been successful leaders, we are concerned. Things weren’t so bad when it was only pink!

    1. I beg to differ, “none if the seven candidates had ever worked full time in a Wyoming school system.” I have taught full time in Wyoming. My name is Sergio A. Maldonado, Sr. And I was a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

    2. As someone who worked in K-12 education for 16 years, I agree with you 100%. People with no background in education should not be guiding the state’s education policies and politics should never factor into these decisions. Wyoming is the only state that I have worked in, and I have taught in two other states, where this is an elected position. This needs to change.

  2. Excellent commentary. The Superintendent seems to be hoping to ride the fear of sex wave to higher office.

    We are a sexual species, and kids start having questions very early. Just ignoring their curiosity does nothing to prevent it; they merely acquire false information. Having well-vetted, factual, quality books that address their concerns in a safe environment is crucial to their self-knowledge and can help prevent them from engaging in sex before they are ready, as numerous studies have shown.

    I suspect that the parents wishing to bar those books are uncomfortable with their own sexuality, a discomfort they think we should all feel.

  3. I realize that you must cover important news but this book banning nonsense has got to stop. The word unconstitutional comes to my mind

    They are books. I am guessing this whole mess came from The orange pumpkin head and his cult but , way to much time is being spent on book banning when there are far more serious problems in our country and the world.

    Any kid that has access to a cell phone or a computer of any kind can access all the porn they want. A comedian called cell phones porn in your pocket.

    If parents would put down their cell phones and parent their kids our world would be a lot better place.

    In closing it was a good opinion piece.

    It’s amazing that people in Wyoming elected Megan. Now we see her true colors hopefully they won’t re-elect her

  4. ‘To be released Nov. 1, the material will include sample definitions and “model policies.” It was necessary to intervene, Degenfelder told the congressional panel, because “many districts do not have a robust system or policies in place for appropriate library materials, and they need support from the state level.”’ A couple of the basic necessities taught in any MLIS program includes making sure that your library has a defined “library policy”, which includes collection development. As professionals, school librarians depend on well regarded review sources when selecting titles for their libraries – American Libraries, Library Journal, PW, and the Kirkus Review, just for starters. By “robust” I imagine Degenfelder (and she was the less crazy of the 2 candidates – but ended up being a sheep in wolves clothing) means censorous. That school districts nationwide are in some cases allowing the complaint of one parent to pull a book from school library shelves is both disheartening, and absurd.

    1. And, of course, I meant “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”! What I get for posting before finishing that first cup of coffee.

  5. Wyoming Constitution: Article 7, Section 11. Textbooks. Neither the legislature nor the superintendent of public instruction shall have power to prescribe text books to be used in the public schools.

    Where do we draw the line on overzealous politicians? I thought the Freedom Caucus and the Republicans were against government overreach. They choose when government is going too far, if it doesn’t suit their needs, but they are all about overreach when they worry they can’t control what their children might learn in public schools. And how offensive that they want to tell me what my kids can’t learn! Teach your kids not to touch those nasty books instead of interfering with my kids’ constitutional right (see above) to have locally determined books in their schools.

  6. It sounds easy to say ‘policies that allow parents to opt out…from…specific books’ is the solution, but what does that look like in practice? Do the parents have to be versed on all the ‘specific books’ or do you foresee categories of books? (I’m guessing many parents don’t have that kind of discretionary time). So who categorizes? Are there degrees within each category? And then will there be technology that pops up when the student goes to check out that flags for a category? Is there even such a program? Who pays for it? Then the librarian has to determine whether it’s acceptable with the ‘specific books’ the parent has allowed(500+ students at an elementary schools-around 1,000 at the HS in Cheyenne) There’s enough sexualized material in our culture for those so inclined, but schools putting it into the hands of students, condoning it at school, then trying to get them to focus on math, English grammar, history…? We are compromising their potential for the sake of salacious material. Have you seen the Wyoming’s averages for reading levels? Have you seen the depictions in these books? What if my child is sitting next to a student looking at the graphic depictions of sexual encounters? The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study on exposure to sexual material increasing rates of sexual activity (not surprisingly) so the schools are then setting students up for the emotional tolls of unwanted pregnancies. That’s not a path for successful educational endeavors which is what the schools should be focusing on. This then brings up the emotional toll of early sexual activity outside of marriage and Wyoming’s rates of suicide.
    I agree with you on the Principle of Subsidiarity, allow matters to be handled at the local level as far as they are able, but disagree that this issue can be best dealt with by each school board across the state. We have state standardized tests that thankfully aren’t including ‘gender studies’ (worth researching the etymology of that term and John Money, the doctor behind it and his sexual and medical abuse that led to his trial patient committing suicide) in the k-12, unlike our state University, so the material in the schools should go to supporting those standardized tests in a universal fashion. Do not be deceived with the level of funding pushing the sexualization of the kids. The State needs to lend assistance.
    Parents are free to pick up reading material for their children as they see fit but it does not belong in the classroom. Let’s give our children the fundamentals of math, science, English, and leave the erotic out of the schools.

    1. You parent how you want to parent. Leave others to make those decisions for themselves.

      Personally, I’ll use this whole book banning issue to talk with my kids about hyper partisan influence on the uninformed, uneducated, and bigoted people of a certain political persuasion. To each their own, I guess….

  7. I have a suggestion for the first book to be banned for anyone in public school in Wyoming, the Bible. Have you read that book, everything explicit possible including gay sex, adultery, sodomy, child molestation, rape …

  8. So, Megan Degenfelder has joined the Moms for Ignorance and their Florida puppet masters?

    She should come clean with her evangelical voters. This child of a mineral developer may not believe the Earth is 6,000 years old.