The Wyoming Department of Education will formally step into the ongoing battle over library books next month when it releases guidance and model policies to local school districts.
“I respect local control in government including authority of books and curriculum by locally elected school boards,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday.
“However, through our research, we found that many districts do not have a robust system or policies in place for appropriate library materials, and they need support from the state level,” she said.
As a result, Degenfelder said her office has created statewide library guidance with sample definitions and model policy in collaboration with parents, librarians, school administrators and school board members of “varying backgrounds and viewpoints.”
Further details about the guidance and its development will be shared on Nov. 1, when the department will hold a press conference, WDE spokesperson Linda Finnerty told WyoFile. The guidance will also be released that day.
“This 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,” Degenfelder told the subcommittee.
Degenfelder is in her first year in office. On the campaign trail, she weighed in on the Natrona County school board’s decision whether to keep two controversial books, “Gender Queer” and “Trans Bodies, Selves,” in the Kelly Walsh High School library. She characterized the books as unsuitable for minors, but made clear that decisions about library materials should be made at the district level in accordance with local control. The forthcoming statewide guidance, however, marks a definitive step toward a more top-down approach.
Across Wyoming and much of the country, parents, librarians and public officials are divided over what books should be accessible to children, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ+ content and material that touches on race. Earlier this year, Terri Lesley, a nationally-awarded librarian, was fired from her post of 27 years at the Campbell County Public Library after a two year-long saga over books. Lesley is now suing.
In Washington, Degenfelder was one of four panelists to testify during Thursday’s congressional hearing on “combating graphic, explicit content in school libraries.”
Degenfelder spoke in harmony with most of the panel, which included a Moms for Liberty Maryland chapter chair, Lindsey Smith, and Max Eden, a research fellow at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.
“Inappropriate and sexually explicit materials in schools” are “destroying trust and confidence in our public education,” Degenfelder testified before sharing the story of a mother she said she encountered on the campaign trail.
After the woman’s daughter approached her about a book that made her uncomfortable, the woman read the book herself, Degenfelder said. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the woman was triggered by “sexually depicted graphic acts,” Degenfelder said. When the daughter and several other students asked to opt out of the book, Degenfelder said, “the teacher became their bully.”
When asked by Republican U.S. Rep. Aaron Bean of Florida what other states could learn from Wyoming, Degenfelder reiterated her support for local control “and decision making as close to the people as possible.
“But as I mentioned, knowing that school board members are made up of volunteers and have a heavy task ahead of them — my father served on our local school board — we need to make sure that we provide support to them, model policy and guidance from the state level. And at the local level, I think it’s incredibly important to have transparency, to have processes in place and to have public input. Those things are important, and for our local schools and leaders to remember that, again, they cannot step beyond the bounds of the rights of parents.”
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs for PEN America, was the lone panelist to speak in opposition to library book bans.
“We can and we must distinguish between a single parent raising a concern with the school and the current campaign to disrupt public education writ large,” Friedman said. “Our students deserve to be able to access high-quality educational resources, to access works of literature that reflect their identities and the complexities of their lives. Not every book is for every kid. Not every book is for every family.”
Last month, the Washington Post reported that 60% of all book challenges in the nation came from only 11 adults.
Praise and criticism back home
After her testimony, Degenfelder used the hearing to raise money politically.
“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 a fundraising email sent Thursday.
“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 states.
That drew an angry response from critics.
“It was truly disgusting watching Megan Degenfelder sit in front of Congress and accuse Wyoming’s educators of teaching pornography in the classroom,” the Wyoming Democratic Party said in an Instagram post on Friday. “Even more disgusting? She was fundraising off of it before the mic was even cold. She’s filling her campaign coffers by trashing our teachers and exploiting our children.”
Meanwhile, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus thanked the superintendent in a Facebook post for her testimony. During this year’s legislative session, Freedom Caucus member Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) authored in response to the library book controversy a measure that would have expanded the definition of child pornography in Wyoming, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. The bill, which was co-sponsored by other caucus members, died in committee.