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.
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?