Educational Freedom Act heads to Senate floor
January 26, 2023
CHEYENNE — Legislation that would influence instruction and supporting materials as public schools teach students about the U.S. Constitution, the Wyoming Constitution and “the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals” was passed Wednesday morning out of the Senate Education Committee.
Lawmakers voted 4-1 in support of Senate File 130, with Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, voting no. He voiced concerns that the bill overstepped the Wyoming Legislature’s purview by dictating curriculum and educational content.
This was met with pushback from committee member Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, who argued in support of taking action. He said they had the ability to quell “brush fires” popping up in local communities and that controversial issues, such as sexual orientation and gender identity being discussed in schools, were not going to go away.
“We don’t simply just write checks and go on our way here at the Legislature. We set policy as well,” he said before the vote. “We spend a lot of money on education, and we’re also held accountable to our constituents to make sure that we’re upholding the values that they want us to represent.”
Some of the values he hopes to uphold are included in the “Educational Freedom Act,” sponsored by Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, and three other senators, as well as five representatives.
The bill would set guidelines for teaching to align with “the principles of individual freedom.” These include that all members of the human race are equal, as provided by Article 1, Section 2 of the Wyoming Constitution, and that “no person, by virtue of his ethnicity or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same ethnicity or sex.”
SF 130 also would direct administrative personnel not to implement programs or policies that “adversely reflect upon a person because of his ethnicity, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, disability, socioeconomic status or occupant,” and the board of trustees for any school district could not provide education programs under the same guideline.
Hutchings cited Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s statement that there is a faction of the nation that is spreading inherently divisive information as part of the inspiration for the bill. She said she believes it is also destructive to young people “of whatever ethnicity.”
“It’s mainly affecting our Black community, where we’re being told that our lives don’t matter,” she testified before the committee. “Our history is just full of hatred, and I get that. I know that our history is not the best history, but we’ve come a long way.”
She said the bill was necessary to show people who come to Wyoming, especially military members, that they have done their best to rectify actions of the past and follow the Wyoming Constitution.
Before she explained her reasoning for the legislation, she put forth multiple amendments alongside Wyoming Department of Education Chief of Staff Dicky Shanor.
They wanted to change the place in state statute where the bill’s language would go and remove sections of the bill that dictate how instructional personnel facilitate discussions and administrative personnel implement programs and policies.
“(State Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder) supports these principles, and thinks it’s important to have them in statute,” Shanor said. “However, her thought was that those principles should be a responsibility of the board of trustees. And so, instead of putting it in this section related to the instruction on the state and federal constitutions, that act should actually go in this section of statute around local board of trustees’ responsibilities.”
None of these changes were adopted by the committee before the vote, however.
Lawmakers said they were more comfortable with the original version of the bill and preferred to handle the amendments in the Senate Committee of the Whole.
However, there were stakeholders who found the amendments beneficial to the bill.
Wyoming Education Association Government Relations Director Tate Mullen said during his testimony that the state’s teachers union agreed with the principles laid out in the Educational Freedom Act and supported the removal of the requirements.
This didn’t change the fact, he said, that it circumvented the state’s standards-setting process.
He said when the Legislature starts to delegate and determine standards and instruction, instead of going through the State Board of Education, there is a loss of “an inclusive process that utilizes the input from parents, educators and citizens within communities.”
He also voiced concerns that the bill would impact teacher satisfaction, attraction and retention, because it deals with “respect for the profession.”
“These folks are professionals. They understand what is taught in our classrooms, why it is taught in our classrooms — that has been a big area of contention,” he said. “They feel like they need support. And when the Legislature circumvents a process that has worked for our students and has worked for educators, it’s problematic in terms of demonstrating that support.”
Others spoke in support of SF 130, including Casper resident Kyle True.
He encouraged the Legislature to adopt the bill and thanked lawmakers for trying to be more active in the school system. He said fights are bubbling up across the state, and he doesn’t believe the current system is working for students, teachers or the communities they serve.
“I love to say Wyoming is what America was. But I think that there are rivers running through education today, and we are not the island that I had hoped and thought that we were,” he said. “I think we’re subject to many of the things going on around this country that are going on in the wrong direction.”
This story was published on Jan. 26, 2023.