Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder sponsored an event billed as a discussion of the sexualization of children in Wyoming’s schools. Remarks from invited speakers included anti-LGTBQ rhetoric and misinformation (Aedan Hannon/WyoFile)

In January, Gov. Mark Gordon turned over the keys to Wyoming’s public school system to Brian Schroeder, an outspoken critic of public education and the head of a private Christian school in Cody.

Opinion

Gee, what could possibly go wrong with that fox v. henhouse scenario?

Plenty. Schroeder only has two months left as interim state superintendent of public instruction, since he lost his Republican primary bid to stay in office. But he will be long remembered for his clarion call to sweep diversity out of classrooms and replace it with right-wing propaganda.

The Wyoming Republican Party nominated three extremist candidates to fill in for former SPI Jillian Balow, who bailed in the final year of her second term to take a similar, appointed job in Virginia. Balow’s credentials as a staunch opponent of teaching “critical race theory” here obviously impressed that state’s new governor, who had made CRT one of his campaign’s top bogeymen.

Schroeder was more than happy to pick up Balow’s baton. Once in office, he testified at legislative hearings in favor of anti-CRT bills. It didn’t seem to matter to him in the least that CRT has never actually been taught in Wyoming’s schools. After all, as any good Republican political strategist will tell you, a scared electorate is a malleable electorate. A politician who knows how to wield fear and anger can justify damn near any radical agenda — the facts need not apply.

That may explain Schroeder’s vitriolic obsession with transgender students and the overall “sexualization of our children,” the subject of a rally he convened in Cheyenne last week. Billed as a press conference, it drew exactly one question from a reporter. Instead, the two-hour event supplied a heavy dose of GOP talking points aimed at taking allegedly “pornographic” books out of school and public libraries. The vast majority are LGBTQ-themed.

Schroeder intended this glorification of his own moral code to be funded by the state, but faced with legal concerns, pesky questions from journalists at WyoFile and likely elsewhere, and opposition from his own Department of Education, it was moved to a local hotel. He was looking for donations to defray his $3,000 expense.

It was quite a show. Schroeder choked up several times, particularly when he talked about how students learn lessons that cause them to become adult sex addicts.

“When a young third- or fourth-grade boy is exposed to pornography or any sexually explicit material, it’s like throwing a bomb into his life,” Schroeder said. 

And it’s not just the books in the school library that are to blame. The superintendent also pointed his finger at pop music culture, movies and TV shows, the fashion industry and social media for sexualizing children. Schroeder stopped short of proposing an Iranian style morality-police force, but, hey, he’s still new to life in the government. Give him time. He’ll warm to it. 

In the end, the “press conference” was just an excuse to spew hate, and many of the 150 people who attended were openly hostile to LGBTQ students, teachers and their heterosexual allies. These were the favorite targets in remarks given by three Wyoming parents, state legislators and a national organization called No Left Turn in Education.

Keynote speaker Elana Fishbein is a Philadelphia mother who formed the organization to oppose teaching CRT. She quickly saw her Facebook followers skyrocket from 200 to more than 30,000 after her appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.

Schroeder invited Fishbein to Cheyenne because she symbolizes what he called a “war” between educators and parents.

Since 2020, extreme-right media have kept up a steady drumbeat of opposition to COVID-19 mask mandates, CRT and anything that suggests transgender students should be allowed to peacefully exist in our schools. It’s led to many confrontations at school board meetings in Wyoming and across the nation. Banning LGBTQ books is the rallying cry du jour.

In June, Schroeder proposed rejecting $40 million in federal funds because of a new USDA policy protecting LGBTQ students’ access to school lunch programs. Schroeder called the regulations “social engineering,” all about control and manipulation, not discrimination.

Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) said the feds provide Wyoming schools about $173 million per year, but claimed “there is absolutely no reason we have to take federal money.”

Neiman and like-minded legislators are champing at the bit to severely cut Wyoming’s educational budget, and he knows those federal funds will not be replaced. Teachers are fleeing the system in droves, but Neiman said the state needs to “stop throwing money” at schools.

Nationally, about 300,000 teachers have left the profession since 2020. Fewer educators are being trained. While many observers blame COVID restrictions and low pay, a former teacher at the rally offered another reason.

“I quit last year, and it’s because of this,” said the woman, who spent a dozen years teaching but now works for a software corporation. Her next words were drowned out by applause from those who thought she was referring to child sexualization. She wasn’t, and later explained to reporters her motivation was acrimony over such issues from parents who don’t trust teachers.

Schroeder will leave office in January, but plenty of legislators will pick up his agenda. Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) will try again to defund the University of Wyoming’s gender studies program. Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) wants to ban transgender athletes.

Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) proposed changing the state’s disseminating obscenity law to no longer exempt librarians and teachers, whose use of an “inappropriate” book in school is currently protected if it’s part of their educational duties. 

“It gives them a license to indoctrinate,” she said. “It robs our children of their innocence.”

Students would lose access to books like Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which celebrates inclusivity and tolerance, in the name of innocence.

Question: Do we need to pause and enumerate here the long list of regimes that banned (and burned) books and reflect on how they turned out, or can we just acknowledge that particular glut of sordid history and move on? 

Gloria Courser, a Jackson mother, was responsible for one of the rally’s most bizarre moments. She said because “gender fluidity” cannot be proven, it “requires faith,” the same as any religion. Courser claimed introducing such ideology in our public schools is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state under the U.S. Constitution.

Still, my prize for the most fact-free comment goes to Fishbein, who said she just wants schools to teach in a clear manner, free from partisan bias.

“We want to clean the schools from any politicization or radical indoctrination of any sort,” she said. “It’s not about the right and left, or conservative and liberal.”

Then she proffered that “all the indoctrination is coming from the radical left.”

Sure, no politics in that statement. And Fishbein definitely wasn’t coming at the issues from the far-right when she delivered the day’s loudest applause line: “I should have brought my movement’s T-shirts that say ‘Abolish the Department of Education.’”

“Child sexualization” is only a means to an end, distracting everyone, including the media, from her group’s real mission: use anti-LGBTQ views to further privatize education. More public dollars will go to charter schools — like the three recently approved by the state’s five top elected officials, including Schroeder — instead of local school districts. More children will be homeschooled, further eroding public school funding, and clearing the way for faith-based education.

Question: Can anyone give me the direct English translation of the Pashto word “Taliban”? It means students.

Schroeder is much more than a soldier in these divisive culture wars; he’s a ringleader openly trying to strip dollars from public education.

The Trevor Project is the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ youth. This population is not more prone to suicide because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the group says, but they are placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized by society.

So let’s not pretend LGBTQ students are not victimized, or that teachers are not demonized, at events like Schroeder’s rally. It’s precisely why they are held in the first place.

Kerry Drake

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. Thank you, Kerry Drake , for hitting the nail on the head! It is a chilling movement afoot to weaken the very system that made our democracy strong…..public education. Shouldn’t educators rightly support the freedom to read and the concept of inclusivity? I have a novel idea. Instead of attacking the very people and system that selflessly give so much quality to our kids and their education, let’s reach out in support and thanks for the amazing job they do despite extremely complex and challenging circumstances.

  2. School is a place to learn the basic communication skills required to be a successful adult and mature as a person. Why must it be turned into a swamp of gender dysphoria and CRT? Is it the guilt of a few who never quite found them selves and want others suffer to their fate?

    Lets just keep schools to the basics, be real parents and guide those children through the swamp of good and evil. They can figure out their sexuality as they go but with some support from loved ones. Just sayin’

    1. CRT “indoctrination” is a myth used by the GOP to upset and scare their gullible base.

      It’s working because the fringe base aren’t capable of thinking for themselves.

  3. As a supporter of free access to information and a retired teacher with 30 years in public education, it seems the bedrock of our democracy is under siege. And…I’m so glad my librarian checked out Judy Blumes’ books to me!!

  4. People getting riled up over “indoctrination” reside in both political parties, because there is indoctrination coming from various angles. Does taking children to Sunday school and church and vacation Bible school qualify as indoctrination? It certainly does! Does teaching acceptance of people different than ourselves qualify? The most interesting thing for me is how religion, particularly Christianity has established itself as holding the moral high ground. Even though bigotry was scorned by Jesus, so called Christians ignore the teachings of acceptance and love and demonize people that don’t fit the “mold” deemed as pure by said Christians.
    “Matthew 7:5 New King James Version (NKJV)
    First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

  5. After over 30 years in Wyoming education as a teacher and administrator, I think Kerry nailed this one. Go spend some time in Wyoming schools. If any “indoctrination” is taking place, it’s about getting students to get off their phones & turn in their work. Our social studies standards are weak, not because we are teaching CRT or gender ideology, but because they lack specificity. I have worked with LGBTQ students and staff, and while they face challenges and discrimination, they still contribute positively to our schools. The right wing crusade is about privatization, not the improvement of schools.

  6. File this column under “elections matter”; vote as our democracy depends upon it, because it does. Coup d’etats can occur, as we look to the past, with a swift and violent military grab of power. But the trend currently has been the coup by the ballot box and the slow and incremental disassembly of democracy by “legal” means (“How Democracies Die”. Ch 4, “Subverting Democracy.” Ziblatt and Levtsky. Pp 72-96. 2018).
    This is another great analysis of Schroeder’s “neo-Nuremberg” rally last week. With a chapter out of Iran’s morality police and the Orwellian term “Taliban” (which Drake informs us is Pashto for “student”) we can see where the extreme right wants go in governance and it sure as hell isn’t towards democracy. I fully agree that this isn’t about books, or about LGBTQ+, or CRT, its bigger. Its about the attempt to stage a theocratic tyranny coup d’etat.

    1. I agree, elections do matter. But the problem is with the fringes on both sides of the ledger not just the extreme right. You see this in the extreme left wing that embraces CRT, embraces inclusivity for a couple of people at the expense of all, male participation in athletic events for women because they identify as female, you cannot support the police without offending someone, removal of monuments because somebody out there might be offended – and do not say anything about it because the radical left will light you up. Don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone should be treated with respect no matter how they choose their life and nobody should be excluded, but we should respect all people not just those that choose a lifestyle the rest do not choose – or because of their color, culture, religion or gender. Its simple, not complex. Just be respectful to everyone.

      Let’s get back to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic and leave the political indoctrination at home. I can tell you as an employer we need focus on education because what we are churning out of the school system is not preparing kids for real life. We need to teach kids they everyone is equal, make sure the playing field is as equal as possible, but not everyone achieves the same equity. Equal is given, equity earned.

      1. The cry of “OMG indoctrination ” began with the religious right complaining about teaching science to kids who were told creationism was legit.

        Now “indoctrination” includes everything under the sun. Attaining knowledge on something that is outside of your comfort zone is desirable. It’s unfortunate that the boomer aged folks fear change so much that they feel the need to restrict what other children are taught.

        It isn’t “OMG indoctrination” just because you were never exposed to ideas that kids are being taught today. Society and education has changed exponentially since the angry boomers were in school 30+ years ago.

        Times change. Fringe repubs don’t want them to.

  7. When I was a youngster, school was pretty much just about learning to read, write, add and so on. Most parents I knew had no issue with the teachers who taught us those things. I don’t recall anyone teaching about sex, CRT, gender studies or anything else like that. Pretty much just the basics to prepare us for further education. I knew a few kids who were gay but they mostly kept it to themselves and no one bugged them. It’s a system that seemed to work pretty well and keep controversy out of education. I wonder why so many appear to think it wise that we abandoned that system for what we have today?

    1. I finished a 30 year career teaching science at Cody High School a few years ago. If people could really see what goes on at a Wyo high school, I think they would be very pleased. The atmosphere is busy, interesting and hectic. The only ones who seem obsessed with sex are the right wing extremist. Most of whom have never set foot in a Wyoming school and are recent arrivals who bought their issues with them. The strategy is an ancient one, create a problem that doesn’t exist, then show yourself as the hero who will solve it! Theocracy not democracy is the goal.