Wyoming’s top public school official spoke Saturday at a Denver conference also featuring the controversial Moms for Liberty. While the extremist group and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder made separate presentations, their missions seem to align.

Opinion

Degenfelder’s call at the Western Conservative Summit to take all political bias out of classrooms was laughable, in light of her far-right political rhetoric. She called for bans on “critical race theory,” transgender students competing in girls’ sports and LGBTQ-themed books in school libraries — echoing issues central to the national and Wyoming Republican agenda.

If you object to things like critical race theory, “then you will be met with slurs and protests,” Degenfelder said. “You will be intimidated and you will be silenced. I will not be silenced.”

No, she was plenty vocal at the summit. On Degenfelder’s list of public school enemies were teachers’ unions, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” and the lack of patriotism taught in classrooms. 

By patriotism, the superintendent added, she does not mean we must teach that America is always right. “Indeed, it’s critical that we teach about the mistakes of our country, because only then can we talk about the tremendous progress we have made,” Degenfelder said. “That’s the part the left wants to leave out.”

Tina Descovich, co-founder of the Florida-based Moms for Liberty, echoed Degenfelder’s critique. That overlap is especially concerning because last week, Moms for Liberty was identified as an “extremist” anti-government parental rights group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such organizations. Descovich scoffed at the label, but it certainly fits.

“We are at war,” Descovich said. “It’s a war of good versus evil. It’s a war against truth versus lies. Some people call it a cultural war. Some call it a spiritual war. And parents are on the very front lines because our families are under attack.”

Once parents lose the right to raise their children and direct their religious and moral upbringing, then “we’re done. Our families are done. This country is done,” Descovich said. 

Moms for Liberty is fighting back, she noted, with almost 300 chapters and 120,000 members in 45 states, with several chapters in Wyoming. A total of 275 members nationally won school board seats in 2022.  

The group initially organized to fight COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates in schools and then launched a campaign to ban books that “sexualize” children. It also has a broader mission to dismantle public education.  

Despite efforts to increase school choice, Descovich said, 75% to 80% of students are still in public schools. “Are we going to let our youngest learners truly believe that at 5 years old they can decide if they want to be a boy or a girl, or neither or both, or change their mind from day to day?” she asked.

Descovich said parents can’t sit back for 12 years and let their children be taught “that America is a horrible place, that it’s racist, that it’s sexist, that it’s homophobic and is not going to allow [students] to succeed.”

“Home school them if you need to,” she urged parents. “But you have to get back in this fight.”

One of the prime targets shared by Moms for Liberty and Degenfelder is critical race theory.

But CRT isn’t even taught in grades K-12. It’s a law school course that shows how systemic racism still negatively impacts our country. Degenfelder identified the fears it supposedly promotes: establishing “a sense of guilt and helplessness in our kids, dividing them by race, such that some kids are taught that they are oppressors whose success will be a product of their privilege, not their merit.”

Degenfelder, who doesn’t want white kids to feel bad for the sins of their ancestors, didn’t address ongoing racism today. Instead, she blamed teachers. Degenfelder said minorities “are instructed that they are perpetual victims, stuck in a system and a society that will always be rigged against them.”

Given her radical views, it was hypocritical for Degenfelder to tell her conservative audience that America must “promote social cohesion by bringing together people of all different backgrounds and giving them the shared experience grounded by our shared ideals and civic values.”

Degenfelder charged that the left hasn’t been able to achieve its goals through political consensus, so in recent years progressives have been using classroom instruction to reach “impressionable future voters.”

I guess that’s why the left’s effort to win over the hearts and minds of Wyoming’s 90,000 public school students has done so much to boost Democratic voters in this state. The GOP only controls the entire congressional delegation, all five statewide offices and has super-majorities in the Legislature. No wonder Republicans are upset at their opponents for using classrooms for political gain.

“[The left] should not cloak political agendas in lesson plans,” Degenfelder said. “It should not presume the righteousness of one side over another. It should not exclude important context in order to obscure the whole story or legitimize fringe ideas from either side of the political spectrum.”

Degenfelder won last year’s GOP primary against interim Superintendent Brian Schroeder, who previously ran a private Christian school in Cody. 

Schroeder was far to the right of any statewide office holder in at least the past 50 years. He often got teary during legislative committees and public meetings, presenting his vision for Wyoming education.

Lost during the campaign was the fact Degenfelder embraced nearly every far-right position that Schoeder did, but she didn’t openly weep. Voters seemed willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was much more moderate than her opponent.

She’s not, but Degenfelder defeated Democrat Sergio Maldonado easily in the general election, so apparently, her policies connected with Wyoming voters. 

But her claim that she’s trying to get politics out of classrooms is just plain silly, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) pointed out at a recent Joint Education Committee meeting.

After Degenfelder outlined her six initiatives for a sweeping new WDE strategic plan, including a CTE ban, Rothfuss pushed back.

“There shouldn’t be political bias in schools. There should be an objective marketplace of ideas,” he agreed. But Rothfuss said her positions are “effectively an expression of political bias” that Republicans have rallied behind.

He’s right, of course. Identifying what one sees as “divisive and inappropriate concepts” is an overtly political act. Degenfelder’s defense was weak, noting that her strategic plan is based on the issues she campaigned on.

How much more political can she get?

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. When we stand in that “box” on election day, it is our responsibility to research our candidates. When just check a “box” we get a boxed candidate.

  2. Ms. Degenfelder joins trustees from around Wyoming who quote with facility some of the slogans favored by the Moms and other right wing groups — catchy but fundamentally empty of educational substance. It sounds okay unless you try to pin down what they actually mean by school of choice, or sexually explicit content, or CRT. Also, blame everything politically unpopular on an undefined “leftist” influence. Vague references with no data, but creating nerve-wracking uncertainty among professional educators.
    Ms. Degenfeder is a politician, and she fills her top WDE positions with partisan voices. She has a newly announced uber-cabinet of citizen advisors. I look forward to reading a list of those appointees on the WDE website.

  3. Accuse the other side of that which you yourself are guilty of. She’s certainly got the basics of propaganda down.

  4. Thanks Kerry for this observation and analysis. You are absolutely right noting that Degenfelder is as bad or worse than Schroeder was. In the first order, as you make clear, Degenfelder ran a disingenuous campaign (if not outright mendacious) telling folks she was a moderate compared to Schroeder. Had folks paid attention to her testimony at a Natrona County school board meeting early in the campaign where she made her positions very clear regarding her vision of education. In sum, Degenfeldger’s vision of Wyoming education is using DeSantis’ Florida template in which the state is “invading the classroom” in terms of what can be taught, what instructional materials are used, what books are permitted on the shelves of school libraries and teachers’ resource shelves in the classroom (so much for the conservative principle of small government and local control). Degenfelder’s vision includes a nod towards DeSantis’ encouragement of individuals to act as vigilantes and go after teachers and books. Too, this vision is also very much in line what former state superintendent Balow proposed prior to her leaving for Virginia, which ultimately was pushed back and that resistance played in a role in her dismissal. This state has not had a Superintendent who was a professional educator by trade and brought that expertise to the office since the administrations of Lynn Simons and Diana Ohman. Cindy Hill was a clue that the office was now seen as an ideological springboard for higher political office. Balow energized that notion and Degenfelder has brought it to full fruition. In sum, the far right in this state has attacked our schools and the education of our children for ideological and political ends and political ambition. Thanks again Kerry (note I taught for 36 years in Cheyenne, served on the local school board for eight years and was a member of the State Board of Education for six years.)

  5. To rely on Southern Poverty Law Center as your gauge for what is or is not bias is the worst journalism I have ever seen, even in an opinion piece. These are the same people who say that anyone concerned about the direction in which our country is going, or that anyone even questioning the leftist movement by protecting their families from the intrusion of government is a “hate group”. They even declare that Catholics who attend the Latin Rite Mass are “domestic terrorists”! Are you kidding?

    1. SPLC is very reliable and trusted by the FBI. The Roman Catholic Church is NOT on the SPLC list as”domestic terrorists. The Church is listed as anti-abortion, but not on the “terrorist list.” Troy needs to get better sources or learn how to search the internet before he makes his false claims.

      1. I did not say the Church herself was on their list, I said Catholics attending Latin Rite Mass are. They are called antisemites on SLPC’s website, even though they honor Abraham as their father in faith at every liturgy. The FBI is after Latin Mass goers thanks to SLPC, and is willfully weaponizing their authority against people of faith and prolife folks. SLPC is by no means an unbiased source, nor a source of truth. I do not criticize your internet abilities, Frank, and I am just ignorant in that I don’t know but to only tell the truth.

        1. The statement that the FBI is after every Latin Mass goerer, is a grossly broad overreach. I am confident that the FBI is able to discern who, what, where and when falls in to concern regarding those that should or need to be on a terrorist list. I am also confident while the SLPC creates and maintains their own terrorist, that the FBI is going to prefer to go by the FBI terrorist watchlist, no fly list and so on.

  6. Degenfelder is not an advocate for public education and all it represents.
    As a retired public educator, I’m embarrassed at what she spews.
    Our students and teachers, as well as administrators deserve better.
    Shame on her!

  7. Thank you for calling out the “Moms of Liberty” and Degenfelder. Moms of Liberty portrays itself as, “non partisan”, “grass roots”, “giving parents a voice” when really they are a top down, well funded GOP political organization that manipulating parents with lies and the usual GOP tactics by “creating” boogeymen (teachers) and scaring them to get their support of an extreme agenda. Once again we have the hypocrisy of an elected official lying to the public about teachers “indoctrinating students”, so she can put HER and the Moms of Liberty agenda into school and actually indoctrinate and control kids.
    The one thing teachers are guilty of is teaching kids how to be critical thinkers. Apparently the GOP doesn’t like people who think for themselves.