Former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, during a press conference in April 2020. (Micheal Pearlman/office of Gov. Mark Gordon)

One afternoon this spring, educators around Wyoming logged onto Zoom for a voluntary lesson on 20th Century U.S. history featuring a “live presentation from an esteemed scholar expert.”

For the next two hours, College of the Sequoias history professor Stephen Tootle led roughly a dozen high school and college-level educators through a lecture on American foreign policy. 

The lecture drilled down on the legacy of Republican President Ronald Reagan and the post-war, anti-interventionism of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Tootle derided partisan hardliners like the anti-communist Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and criticized the foreign policy stances of Democrats like John F. Kennedy.

Event organizers clearly outlined Tootle’s experience as a scholar of U.S. history. They were less forthcoming about his political background. Tootle has held leadership roles in local Republican politics and as a conservative commentator in California. His resume also includes positions at numerous organizations aligned with conservative causes, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Ashbrook Institute.   

The webinar, according to a review of social media posts, was one of a series of events in western states to promote civics curriculum created by the Bill of Rights Institute. 

The Koch brothers-backed venture promotes a conservative interpretation of American history in elementary and high school classrooms, according to left-leaning media watchdog Center for Media and Democracy. That curriculum covers a number of hot-button conservative topics, including affirmative action, the L.A. race riots and the rise of “Democratic Populism.” 

A representative from the Bill of Rights Institute said the organization seeks to offer perspectives from both sides of the political spectrum in its curriculum. Its curriculum does ideologically sit “right of center,” said BRI spokesman Chris Janson.

A screenshot of curriculum offered by the Bill of Rights Institute during an April Zoom lecture on 20th Century American history. The Bill of Rights Institute is a conservative-leaning civics education organization, and one of just a handful of resources for Wyoming social studies teachers. (Screenshot/WyoFile)

“We really strive towards viewpoint diversity,” Janson said. “We get that the reputation that we have comes from our donors, because we do receive funding from a couple of the Koch foundations. But none of our donors tell us what to write. All of our material is written by scholars from all across the ideological spectrum.”

Such efforts from special-interest groups across the ideological spectrum stand to have an outsized impact in Wyoming classrooms, critics contend.  Without a defined civics education standard, and with little guidance on developing curricula, some educators fear that politics and personal perspectives can creep into the void — particularly as the national debate heats up over critical race theory, American exceptionalism and other interpretations of history. 

“If you sat down and were to look at the standards for science or computer science, you would see this magnificent roadmap of what we expect to do and where we expect to go,” said Nate Breen, an outgoing trustee with the Wyoming State Board of Education and the 2009 winner of the American Civic Education Teacher Award, one of the nation’s top honors for civics educators. “But social studies is a cacophony of vagaries. And no one has wanted to change it.”

Wrapped up in politics

Unlike most states, Wyoming has no specific curricula requirements for teachers looking to teach civics or U.S. history in the classroom. That policy choice, critics say, has had severe implications.

Wyoming’s civics standards rank among the weakest in the nation, according to a report released by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank. Wyoming received “F” grades in both civics and history standards for being “inadequate,” lacking in detail and offering little guidance to educators.

“Wyoming’s paltry collection of civics benchmarks provide almost no useful guidance to educators, and a dearth of essential content is compounded by poor organization,” the report says.

That lack of guidance can also lead educators to seek out materials from other sources, including organizations like the Bill of Rights Institute, whom several educators interviewed by WyoFile described as among the top resources available. One attendee of the April event, who advises on curriculum for several school districts in eastern Wyoming, said the information from the webinar could eventually make its way into classrooms there.  

This as the nation’s classrooms have become the latest battlefield in the culture wars between Democrats and Republicans. 

Wyoming’s lack of a U.S. history curriculum standard often leaves educators to evaluate the bias of the information they receive. 

“The dilemma that we have now is what is politicized,” said Matt Strannigan, a former high school principal in Wyoming and the state coordinator for The American Heritage Center in Cheyenne. “I think you’ve got to be critical [of these organizations]. You have to do a critical analysis of what the presentation entails to discern what path they’re taking us down.”

Wyoming has not been spared the type of politicization of civics and history education that has come to dominate school board meetings in Virginia’s Loudoun County and Bozeman, MT

During the 2021 legislative session, freshman Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) introduced legislation to implement a controversial set of civics education standards as a response to a system he said was “very much tilting more towards a liberal view of education.” That legislation failed. (Haroldson did not respond to a request for an interview.) In Laramie County School District 1, a dust-up took place over textbooks some perceived to be teaching critical race theory. The books turned out to be copies of a type of curriculum called “Wit and Wisdom,” an English language arts curriculum that has drawn the scorn of some conservative groups.

And after the Biden administration proposed a rule change encouraging the use of curriculum like the 1619 Project (which hypothesizes America’s wealth was derived largely from the marginalization of Black people), Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow released a statement decrying the attempt to “normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories about America’s history.”

Balow later denied her statement was intended to be political, telling WyoFile she believes classrooms should be teaching a “diversity of thought and perspective.” 

While she believes the federal government has a role in bolstering requirements for civics and social studies education, she said she disagrees with the government proposing specific curriculum without offering a measure for social studies proficiency. Until such a yardstick is available, Balow said, she believes that decisions about what gets taught and when are best made by community members and education officials at the local level. That method, she said, is the best way to build community consensus around what some perceive to be divisive issues.

“When the federal government incentivizes one theory, one ideology over another, then that narrows the gap for us to be able to achieve that,” Balow said. “And that bothers me.”

She also praised the work of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and antiracist historian Ibram X. Kendi (whose work was also cited as curriculum in the Biden administration’s incentive program) as perspectives that “should be taught” in classrooms.  

“I am absolutely for teaching social studies, civics education and U.S. history, better,” she told WyoFile. “And that means that we go into more depth and more breadth in the content that we deliver, and the discussions that we elicit in our classrooms.” Critical race theory, however, is an “oversimplified” interpretation of American history Balow later told Cowboy State Politics. 

Nothing to take its place

To fill the gap in Wyoming’s civics and social studies education standards, educators like Strannigan and Breen have long participated in the Center for Civics Education’s We The People Program, an elective student organization that promotes teaching and learning about the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. (The Center has worked with the Bill of Rights Institute.) 

The program has its limits, however. Strannigan, the organization’s Wyoming coordinator, said We The People is active in fewer than two dozen schools in the state, and while the program does assist with professional development, state standards fail to encourage teachers to offer students a broad and nuanced view of American society.

Some educators interviewed by WyoFile point to an increasing emphasis on STEM fields, the corresponding de-emphasis on testing for social studies, and the reduced number of social studies courses required for graduation as key culprits.

“If you’re in education long enough, you’ll tend to see the pendulum swing back one way or another,” said Mike Thomas, a We The People affiliate and government teacher at Sheridan High School. “But I think we’re at that point right now where we’ve had a lack of social studies, and now people are shocked that our students don’t know their history or government.”

For a time, students could make up for that lack of understanding through elective courses at the post-secondary level. Though the state’s lone four-year public university, the University of Wyoming, has begun to expand its offerings in civics and cultural competency, Wyoming’s community colleges in recent years have followed the course of Wyoming’s K-12 education system, tailoring limited resources to career readiness programs while de-emphasizing training in the humanities. 

That trend could continue as community colleges cut budgets in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the Wyoming Community College Commission’s updated its strategic plan focused primarily on meeting the needs of industry and economic diversification, with little mention of bolstering studies in the humanities. 

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Ben Moritz, Deputy Director and Chief Academic and Student Services Officer for the WCCC, said each college’s upcoming spending reductions depend on factors beyond the programs they value. However, Moritz said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if humanities programs — including civics, history, and sociology — are ultimately impacted, largely due to the fact fewer students are enrolling in humanities-focused degree programs at the community college level.

Aura Newlin — an anthropology and sociology professor at Northwest College in Powell whose position was eliminated this spring after nine years — was awarded statewide faculty member of the year by the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees in 2018.  Before becoming a budget-cuts casualty, she taught social science courses at the college, including a course she had personally developed on race and ethnic relations.

If the college was committed to teaching social justice issues, Newlin said, it would have invested in them. By eliminating her position, she said, courses on race, if taught at all, will likely lack the breadth of expertise they once did. 

“In my mind, if the college actually cared about ramping up their education on race — like the rest of the country is realizing they need to — they could have justified keeping me on by saying it was a required course for students,” Newlin said. She has since taken a part-time position at UW.

As social unrest around race relations in America continues to escalate, Newlin said, her position is more relevant than ever.

Can we divorce politics from civics?

Balow acknowledged that the Wyoming Department of Education has room to improve on its social studies requirements. Teachers need to be equipped with adequate professional development to be able to interpret the materials they receive, she said and to enable students to “build their beliefs,” rather than have their beliefs built for them.

“The school should be a safe place from judgment about how you feel about politics as you grow into your own principles,” Balow said. “But it also should be a place that flourishes with lots of ideas and lots of discussions that engages students so they can build their own set of ethos before they graduate. That’s what I want for our kids.”

Balow’s critics, however, say that the DOE has done little to realize that vision, leaving Wyoming to the status quo and the potential for legislative action.

Wyoming State Board of Education member Nate Breen (right) speaks during a meeting of the SBE in February 2019. (Wyoming Department of Education/Facebook)

Balow said she believes Wyoming needs legislative guidance on civics education and that it should involve difficult conversations about parsing facts and theories, and acknowledge the need to teach America’s atrocities alongside its accomplishments.

“America is at a very strange crossroads right now, and it’s really hard to have these conversations,” Balow said. “But most Americans believe that history can be taught in ways that don’t categorize or divide students in a way that upholds all Americans as Americans, celebrates the progress that we’ve made and acknowledges that we have more growth to make as a nation.”

However, Wyoming is a politically and ethnically homogenous state. Whether it will be willing to address the ugly side of its history without decrying those lessons as divisive remains a question.

“Just because 1.4% of Wyoming’s population is African-American, doesn’t mean that Wyoming kids shouldn’t learn about the whole history,” Breen said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to delete an unattributed description of the Bill of Rights Institute as partisan. -Ed.

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  1. “Just because 1.4% of Wyoming’s population is African-American, doesn’t mean that Wyoming kids shouldn’t learn about the whole history,” Breen said.”

    What? No one thinks that Wyoming’s children shouldn’t learn about African American history because Wyoming is predominantly white. Did the author even consult Wyoming’s Social Studies Standards when writing this? Wyoming’s Social Studies Standards for Citizenship, Government, and Democracy require teaching about federal, state, AND tribal government systems. The Culture and Cultural Diversity Standards require teaching about negative interactions between pioneers and Native Americans and about the racial conflicts undergirding every historical movement. The Time, Continuity and Change Standards require teaching on the Indian Removal Act and its evils, the Civil War and its causes. If you truly think that students in Wyoming schools aren’t learning about the evil of slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and important Black historical figures, you must not have kids in school.

  2. Civics classes are important if our republic is going to outlast the war on intellect and ethics that is being waged by the left. Fascism is a leftist construct. When corporations like Google and Facebook and the major networks can partner with a totalitarian party like the one in power in Washington today then you have an Orwellian dystopia. Facts become malleable and transitory. History becomes pliable and squishy. The brave heroes of the past are forgotten, their words erased and their statues toppled.
    That works fine for those who demean honor and consistency in their lust for power. The children are the key to the future, as Hitler said. Once he had the children the parents would follow. The left proudly follows this example.
    It is our duty to posterity to ensure that children can think critically. They must learn to debate the pros and cons and decide about politics in an intellectual manner. Emotional appeals from the left are always aimed at turning off the analytical mind and triggering emotional decisions.
    That’s great if you’re choosing plates for your wedding registry or a necktie to go with a sport coat. But deciding the future of a nuclear superpower is not a game for people stuck in forever puberty.
    Awareness and responsibility come from life lessons and a thorough liberal education. I mean the kind of education that teaches you how to be thoughtful and logical.
    Wisdom is absolutely precious. But you don’t pick it up easily. Some of us went through very bad times to know what we know. We also read a great deal about the evil regimes of the past and can recognize patterns. To appreciate the gifts of our forebears we need to be educated in a non-political and nurturing environment. We should not know how our teachers vote. But we should know how the system is intended to function. That way we can spot an effort to break that system or subvert it for nefarious ends.

    1. Facts are certainly “malleable and transitory” in the first paragraph of your comment Bob.

      A “war on intellect and ethics being waged by the left”? This makes it hard to take of any of your commentary seriously, and makes it evident that you haven’t paid any attention at all to the right and the republican party lately.

      1. I don’t expect a leftist to grasp the reality of my statements.
        It’s always personal and emotional and too close to home.
        Of course there are bad Republicans.
        Most side with leftists and favor lawless behavior and wars and government overreach.
        Put on your big boy pants and focus on the universal goal.
        We need fair application of common standards and laws.
        Our society is being balkanized intentionally by Marxists for their own benefit.
        Are there a few Republicans who could use more liberal education? Sure.
        But they are not the ones burning cities and assaulting journalists.
        Those are leftist thugs. They need a long time out in a cold cell.
        Conservatives make better history teachers because they don’t want to control the beliefs of others. Leftists see themselves as agents of change, which means they do not want people to think for themselves. That is dangerous.

    2. you keep saying ethics and facts are important, and I agree with you. But if they were really as important TO YOU as you claim they are, you’d admit that chrump lost the election. you’d admit that there was no fraud, and that the election wasn’t “stolen” from chrump. We’re right back to the unhealthy victim mentality Bob.

      wouldn’t sowing doubt in our election system be a conscious effort to break our system or “subvert it for nefarious reasons”? you have a consistent habit of talking out of both sides of your mouth. is this one of the cases where others should do as you say, and not as you do?

    3. You seem to have some critical thinking skills based on other comments I have read of yours, however these two lines: “Fascism is a leftist construct.” and “Emotional appeals from the left are always aimed at turning off the analytical mind and triggering emotional decisions.” make it pretty clear that you are just accusing “the left” of the crimes of the right.

      Emotional appeals are the bread and butter of Trump and the current GOP. An evening of watching Fox News or OANN should make that perfectly clear. And the idea of fascism being a leftist ideology is a fundamental misunderstanding of what political right vs left actually means. “The Anatomy of Fascism” by Robert Paxton is a good place to start if you want to understand this political ideology and its roots and support from the conservative Italian right. While Mussolini was initially a socialist, his support was derived from traditional conservatives (the Catholic Church, monarchists) and disenfranchised veterans of WWI who felt the government had let them down. The same basic groups also supported (or at least condoned) Hitler’s rise in Germany. And while fascism does count on the support of a strong central government, this alone does not in any way make it a “leftist construct”.

      1. Lenin congratulated Mussolini on his rise to power. He was a communist first. Hitler only turned right when his brown shirts threatened a 2nd revolution because he was working with big business and the army and the army demanded he do something. So he killed a thousand supporters in the night of the long knives. Until then his strongest supporters were gay. Then Himmler stepped in and things got really twisted. I will look at your reference. But most historians are dishonest.

      2. I looked at an overview of Paxton’s book and his research appears genuine. Then he proffers his opinions.
        This is where most historians step on the rake.
        Just because veterans join your leftist movement is no reason to call it right wing.
        Just because the bankers or corporate kingpins decide to support you so they can profit from your crazy ideas does not make you a conservative.
        Today we have a fascist government. Corporate kingpins got Biden appointed. Twitter and Facebook and Google will not permit me to criticize the old guy in the basement. But you can say anything you want about the last President on any platform so long as it is insulting. Antifa and BLM are the blackshirts beating up enemies of the state. The Democrats openly support their violence. Go back and look at Paxton’s book with open eyes. Focus on the facts and not your emotions. Republicans aren’t marching, democrats are.

  3. Great breakdown Nick as there is a lot going on between History and Civics and I think we should clarify the differences. History in the context of creation of the American form of government along with its processes should be part of a Civics curriculum. Naturally that discussion will include grievances concerning the monarchy, grievances of the larger/smaller colonies and grievances of the planter class when forming our government. While I had Civics, I really did not understand the beauty of our system until I was much older.

    When it comes to History it was certainly white washed and mainly involved dates and a description of momentous events, I did not understand all the context of those events until much later, when I could put those events into their true context. For instance I grew up with Disney/John Wayne version of the Alamo and Davy Crockett only to realize later what a farce that presentation was. Same with many other figures in history as the white washing is really evident.

    I will quibble about the main premise of the 1619 Project as the main thrust for me was not the wealth created on the backs of slave labor, but how the African American struggle helped make the Constitution live up to the ideals that were set forth in the document. I am convinced that is the main reason whites repel from the 1619 project, is due to the fact that it took former slaves to make the White Founder class live up to the document they wrote. I am also convinced this white sentiment is reflected in the absolute disgust some hold for former President Barak Obama, as he was a decent family man that ran a center right governance quite effectively after two bumbling white fools wrecked the Middle East and the American Economy.

    Which leads me to the next analysis as the topics portrayed in the Bill of Rights presentation as those topics are damned interesting and I would love to hear what was said about those issues because there is room for a great deal of swinging between conservative or liberal viewpoints on those issues. I would love to discuss Rodney King, Iran Contra, the Patriot Act, Surveillance State, Afghanistan, Tim Mc Veigh and Fossil Fuels.

    Of course the thing that scares me most is this statement “Balow said she believes Wyoming needs legislative guidance on civics education and that it should involve difficult conversations about parsing facts and theories, and acknowledge the need to teach America’s atrocities alongside its accomplishments.”

    Knowing what I know about the legislature and where it gets its “facts” it should a nut fest when ALEC speaks to the subject in Wyoming. Ha I looked it up and they are already on it, what a group! I do not have enough time to repel the subtle way they do their work, OY!

  4. Just drop “civics” entirely. It always has been no more than flag-waving propaganda (often “taught” by dull-witted sports coaches), presenting a country that never existed, and, in all likelihood, never will.