CASPER — Last fall, two of the Wyoming Legislature’s top lawmakers held a press conference with the then-schools superintendent to announce plans for a bill tied to public concerns over critical race theory.
A press conference for a single bill is unusual in Wyoming, and it highlighted right-wing worry over critical race theory — an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in U.S. institutions and society.
Senate leadership filed the measure this week. Senate File 62 requires school districts to create an online directory listing all teaching materials and curriculum used in each school by grade level and subject.
The “Civics Transparency Act” requires Wyoming school districts to publish online an annual list of material and activities organized by school, grade and subject area, in addition to policies employed to approve those learning materials.
If the bill is passed in its current form, the online materials will have to be updated on an ongoing basis over the course of the school year.
If teachers or administrators do not comply, they don’t lose their job, go to jail, lose funding or get fined. The measure is essentially toothless, and primary sponsor Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devil’s Tower, said he did that on purpose.
Driskill and his co-sponsor Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, said the bill does nothing more than provide increased transparency, and that it is not specifically aimed at fighting back against critical race theory, which is not actually being taught in Wyoming schools.
“This bill is set up to be really a good-faith effort,” Driskill said. “This merely makes it so you can see what’s being taught. It is exactly what it says. It won’t stop teaching. A lot of the education community is coming after me on it.”
Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, however, appeared with the lawmakers at that fall press conference and directly linked the legislation to critical race theory.
“Nationwide, we’ve seen K-12 school board meetings engulfed in hostile debate about critical race theory in classrooms,” Balow said. “It is time that we take a stand and action in Wyoming to address this very topic.”
Balow has since resigned her post to take on the same job in Virginia in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s cabinet, a politician whose campaign was heavily focused on opposition to critical race theory.
The new superintendent did not respond to request for comment.
The Wyoming Education Association, a body with nearly 6,000 members, opposes the legislation.
“This isn’t legislatively necessary. This is overreach,” Tate Mullen, director of government relations for the Wyoming Education Association, told the Star-Tribune on Thursday. “We have processes in our schools and in our districts to address this.”
Mullen also expressed concern that the legislation would give more work to “already overburdened and burnt out” teachers.
Driskill sees it differently.
“The bill just states that it has to go on a website. They can snap a photo with their phone,” he said. “They work for us; it’s absolutely fair. We pay their wage.”
The bill also lays out curriculum requirements. Starting with the 2022-2023 school year, students in grades four and above in each district must learn three sections of the Wyoming Constitution that touch on equal rights, as well as some principles of the Declaration of Independence.
Students are already statutorily required to pass exams on the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions to graduate high school.
The curriculum requirements delve specifically into race. Under the bill, students are required to learn “the history of slavery and race based discrimination, to include the end of slavery and efforts to end discrimination in accordance with the founding principles of the United States,” and “that it is wrong to be unfair to anyone or treat anyone differently due to their race or ethnicity.”
The proposed education bill does not mention critical race theory.
At least in Natrona County, the second largest county in the state, students receive a limited education on race.
Explicit references to race in the district’s social studies curriculum are few: The curriculum includes three references to the words slavery or slaves — all in the same section for eighth-grade students. The word “racism” does not appear in the curriculum.
“Valuable principles and lessons? Absolutely. Should we strive to achieve that? Absolutely. Again though, is this legislatively necessary or do we have a well-established process and practice that has worked for students for decades where if we want to include this AND more as well as receive massive stakeholder engagement? We do and we should not start down a slippery slope of what is the purview of the legislature and what is the purview of [the department of education], [state board of education] and massive stakeholder engagement,” Mullen wrote in a text message.
The state already has procedures to oversee what public schools are teaching. Members of the State Board of Education are appointed by the governor, and that group approves content and performance standards that guide how school districts develop curriculum.
Mullen and Wyoming Education Association President Grady Hutcherson said the standards process already in place is the preferred way to address any concerns about what Wyoming students are being taught. The state’s social studies standards are due for review in 2023, a process that allows for public input.
The reaction to the bill by its skeptics mirrors that of another piece of legislation that was recently proposed. A group of state lawmakers drafted a bill for the upcoming budget session that would bar transgender women and girls in Wyoming from participating in high school and collegiate sports that match their gender identity.
There is already a policy in place to work through gender identity in Wyoming high school sports that the top official for the Wyoming High School Activities Association said has been working for eight years.
Like the education association, officials at the Wyoming High School Activities Association were not contacted before drafting and filing.
Wyoming is not alone in introducing the legislation: At least 12 states have introduced similar “transparency” bills.
What’s more, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit organization of state legislators and members of the private sector that drafts and shares model legislation for distribution to state legislatures, has a fill-in-the-blank, high-level version of what is being introduced in Wyoming on its website.
Bills not related to redistricting or the budget must pass a two-thirds introductory vote during a budget session. Individually sponsored bills like the Civics Transparency Act usually have a harder time passing votes.
The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee previously rejected a bill meant to restrict critical race theory in Wyoming classrooms in a split 7-7 vote.
Mullen said the education association expects more critical race theory legislation ahead.