Degenfelder should leave library policies up to local control
Megan Degenfelder, Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction, recently testified at a congressional hearing aimed at “combating graphic, explicit content in school libraries.”
But did she travel to Washington primarily in her capacity as the state’s top public school official, or as a politician raising money for her next campaign?
It’s a distinction that should be important to voters, who will likely be asked in three years whether Degenfelder deserves a second term.
Politicians routinely fundraise while in office. What is striking about this brazen solicitation, though, is that Degenfelder passed the proverbial hat immediately after tethering herself to a national political wedge movement that claims to protect kids from books that local officials and librarians have approved in Wyoming schools.
Local control — the Jeffersonian idea that the government closest to the people governs best — was, for generations, sacrosanct in Wyoming politics. The idea that one of the state’s top elected officials would dare be seen in D.C. advocating for the will of distant politicos over that of local school boards was once laughable. Yet here we are. And it’s not funny.
“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 her fundraising email. “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 stated.
How will political donations of any size to an official who isn’t even up for re-election until 2026 make a difference in how Degenfelder does her job now? Will her vow to “safeguard” students result in more book bans?
Private donations from individuals and groups won’t be used by the Wyoming Department of Education to ban books. But Degenfelder can use public funds, and her sway as superintendent, to support policy and legislation that essentially eliminates local control.
This is another example of a Republican politician using a hot-button social issue to stir up the party’s far-right base, in this case, to censor or suppress books. It’s not something Degenfelder even hinted to voters last year.
Degenfelder told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education that she respects local control in government, including “the duly elected school board authority over books and curriculum.”
That’s the tone she set on the campaign trail in 2022 when she tried to contrast her leadership style with incumbent Brian Schroeder. The former head of a Cody Christian school, Schroeder was appointed interim superintendent by Gov. Mark Gordon when SPI Jillian Balow left the state to take a similar job in Virginia.
Schroeder courted the far-right vote, inviting several members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus to appear with him at a rally against “the sexualization of children” in Cheyenne last year. They eagerly joined Moms for Liberty to bash public schools for having alleged “pornography” on library and classroom shelves. Their chief complaint by far was LGBTQ+-themed books.
Schroeder’s remarks made Degenfelder sound moderate. During her campaign, she weighed in on the Natrona County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees’ review of two books with LGBTQ+ content, saying they were unsuitable for minors. But she made clear that decisions about library materials should be made at the district level, not the state.
Schroeder talked about the issue in terms of good vs. evil, where the state chooses parents and groups with the right morals to decide what books are available to all students.
Candidate Degenfelder said parents’ voices were being silenced in classrooms because the state’s public schools have lost track of Wyoming and American values “like innovation and hard work.” But nothing about books.
Wyoming communities, she explained, have many wide-ranging needs that can’t be met with a one-size-fits-all model. “What it comes down to [is] rolling up our sleeves and working for local control,” she said.
After taking office, Degenfelder changed her tune. She appointed a committee of parents, librarians, school administrators and school board members to work with the WDE to develop statewide “library guidance” for local school districts.
Scheduled to be released this week, the material will include sample definitions and “model policies.” It was necessary to intervene, Degenfelder told the congressional panel, because “many districts do not have a robust system or policies in place for appropriate library materials, and they need support from the state level.”
Translation: Those silly parents in Casper and Lander and Rock Springs just don’t know what’s best for their families or their communities. Luckily the government in Cheyenne is here to help.
“The 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,” Defenfelder testified.
But is it support she wants to offer or to tell districts what they must do? Will these model policies be suggestions from the WDE, or eventually mandated by extremist lawmakers who incorrectly believe it’s their job to determine what books school districts make available to students?
Degenfelder sees a lot she doesn’t like in the public school system she oversees. What she told Congress sounds much like what Schroeder might say about how books that offend some readers are out of line with patriotic values.
“Too often today our public schools are places for social experimentation that serve to divide rather than unite us,” she told Congress. “It is our goal in Wyoming to raise a new generation of leaders to preserve, protect, defend and improve upon what has made America the greatest nation on the planet.”
PEN America, which issues annual reports about book bans, found that in the 2022-23 school year, 30% of the titles removed from libraries were books about race, racism or featured characters of color. Meanwhile, 29% had LGBTQ+ characters or themes.
When state lawmakers try to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history and LGBTQ+ identities, it undermines the freedom of students to read, learn and think for themselves. It also greatly distorts the story of America and frustrates many teachers who are reconsidering their chosen profession.
“Teaching history and government right now is so bad I would not wish it on my worst enemy,” one teacher told University of Wyoming College of Education researchers for a teacher retention study. “Parents want us to teach revisionist history where there was no racism, and the parents act like bullies about it. If they shout loudly enough, they usually get their way. I had never been accused of bias in 20 years until last year. People have lost their minds.”
The Freedom Caucus liked what it heard from Degenfelder, praising her testimony on Facebook. “The people of Wyoming will not be gaslit into allowing pornography in our public education system,” the group’s post stated.
The Freedom Caucus is fundraising to enact an education agenda that suppresses books, opposes “Drag Story Time,” LGBTQ+ “history classes” and Critical Race Theory. The latter is taught at law schools, not Wyoming K-12 schools.
An email signed by Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), caucus chairman, said the “woke mob” of liberal Democrats and “out of touch academic quacks from D.C.” have gone too far attempting “to pervert the minds of our children.”
These efforts are “anti-Christian, overly sexualized, American-hating [and] have gone far beyond the point of no return,” he added. “And it is time we held them accountable by taking back our state’s right to create our own vision of what a proper education looks like.”
Degenfelder called on local schools and leaders to remember that “they cannot step beyond the bounds of the rights of parents.”
Do parents have the ultimate authority to decide what books their children can read? Of course they do. It can be accomplished with policies that allow parents to opt-out if they want to prevent their child from accessing specific books.
But I hope when Degenfelder announces the model library policies, she emphasizes that one parent doesn’t have the right to make such decisions for all families. It’s another parental boundary a superintendent must respect.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
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 can be reached at [email protected].