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Balow cites student’s notes in backing Wyoming’s anti-critical-race theory bill

Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow bows during prayer at the 2019 Wyoming Inaugural on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City File)

September 15, 2021 by Dustin BleizefferWyoFile

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is backing proposed legislation to deter public schools from teaching aspects of critical race theory, citing one student’s notes as evidence of the threat to the state’s education.

Critical race theory is an academic study of systemic racism and inequality rooted in the nation’s history that its scholars say helps explain continuing biases and disparities in modern American life. Though the theory has existed for decades, it has become a political flashpoint in the last year as school districts wrestle with incorporating it into curricula, with right-wing politicians and others attacking it as dangerous indoctrination.

At a Sept. 10 press conference at the State Capitol, Balow, a Republican,  joined the lead sponsor of the Civics Transparency Act, Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and co-sponsor Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), to support the measure. She said critical race theory has already crept into Wyoming public school classrooms, threatening to indoctrinate the state’s youth against U.S. and Wyoming efforts to rectify those inequalities.

Balow said her evidence of the threat includes notes regarding classroom lessons that “lead students to make conclusions that support Marxism in the absence of any comparison to other theories or other concepts.”

Upon WyoFile’s request, Balow provided what she said was evidence: handwritten class notes by a Wyoming middle school student that a parent of the student gave to Balow.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow backs proposed legislation to deter public schools from teaching aspects of critical race theory without a comprehensive examination of civics, and provided notes from a Wyoming student to back up the potential threat. (courtesy/Wyoming Department of Education)

The notes document some fundamentals of Marxism and struggles between class systems in history, as well as theories about male dominance in societal structures. The seven pages of penciled notes include a 10-question quiz about Marxism as well as references to the role of industrial revolution in society, the film “Marxist And Cheese” and the notion of “feminism theory.”

Balow did not follow up with the school or teacher to learn about the specific lesson or course material that were the source of the student’s notes, she told WyoFile.

“A parent expressed a concern and it became my concern as I looked at the notes as well,” Balow said. “It added to, really, what’s a growing queue of concerns from citizens and constituents across the state. So I wouldn’t say that my response to this particular concern did more for me than add to a queue of concerned parents about content that, you know, that’s possibly creeping into our classrooms.” 

Balow also cited a Fordham Report, a publication of a conservative education group, that gave Wyoming an “F” grade for inadequate standards in U.S. history and civics.

The draft bill

Driskill will introduce, and Dockstader will co-sponsor, the Civics Transparency Act, Driskill said during the press conference.

The measure aims to thwart aspects of critical race theory, such as institutional racism and inequality as founding and persisting features of the United States and modern life in America, from being taught in Wyoming classrooms without comprehensive context.

It would require school districts to publicly disclose details relating to “assemblies, guest lectures or other educational events facilitated by the school district or school, including those conducted by individuals not employed or associated with the school or school district, excluding student presentations,” according to the bill draft.

The bill would mandate that districts publicly disclose comprehensive details about civics, social studies and U.S. and Wyoming history curricula before each school year, including “all textbooks, reading material, videos, digital materials, websites, assessments and other online applications.”

“It leaves our system intact … as far as curriculum,” Driskill said during the press conference. “But it is all about transparency. So what the bill really is, is it’s going to make aware curriculum and materials and anything that’s going on in the classroom, as a whole, will be posted on a website so that you the public and you as parents have the ability to see what’s being taught to your kids.”

Parents should be made aware of any instructional materials or guest speakers that might come from “out of country, out of the state that doesn’t fit,” he said.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow (Republican) worries the Biden administration might make teaching critical race theory a condition of federal funding for public education in Wyoming schools, she said. (Wyoming Department of Education)

The bill would also mandate “instruction in the essentials of the United States constitution [sic] and the constitution [sic] of the state of Wyoming,” according to the draft. Instruction would also include “the study of and devotion to American institution and ideals,” as a graduation and degree requirement for all state-supported K12 schools and colleges. 

The instruction would be taught for a minimum of three academic years in grades K-8, and one academic year in high schools, according to the draft.

“[It] does not affect, in any way, what local school boards do,” Driskill said. “The [Wyoming] State Board of Education, they still review [all curricula standards].”

Balow has long been an advocate for “overhauling our entire civics framework in Wyoming,” she said. Driskill’s proposed bill, she told WyoFile, addresses two “primary deficiencies” in Wyoming education.

First, there’s a lack of “state leadership” for what’s expected of schools “when it comes to teaching U.S. history and civics,” she said. Second, parents are upset about not being able to effectively engage in curriculum decisions at the school-district level.

Balow cited a Wyoming Tribune Eagle report of frustration among parents that became so heated it prompted the Laramie County School District #1 Board of Trustees to shut down public comment due to disruptive behavior during a public meeting.

Opposition to the bill

The Wyoming Education Association opposes the measure, it said, for its “political” approach to mandate detailed disclosures of curricula and materials, and for mandating specific course topics.

“This draft legislation is the perfect example of a problem we see time and again here in Wyoming,” WEA President Grady Hutcherson said in a statement. “The legislation reflects a lack of understanding about what’s practical in Wyoming classrooms.”

Classrooms at Southridge Elementary in Casper were prepped for the upcoming school year on Aug. 24, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Parents and communities already have thorough access and a “right to be collaborative partners in students’ education,” Hutcherson said. Those disclosures, discussions and deliberations begin with parents and local schools and school boards, while curriculum standards are set by the autonomous Wyoming State Board of Education via multiple channels of public and professional input, he said.

“The state of Wyoming’s process for standards review is practical and trustworthy as it allows for input from both public comment and content-area expertise,” Hutcherson said. “This process should not be subverted for political purposes.”

WEA supports transparency in education, Hutcherson said. However, the proposed legislation misses the mark by placing onerous burdens on teachers while also potentially depriving students of an education free of undue political influence.

“Being overly prescriptive by attempting to legislate strict adherence to cataloging all materials used to support lessons is unrealistic and burdensome red tape and takes away quality teaching time with students,” Hutcherson said. “It’s unrealistic and limiting to expect [teachers and schools] to keep account of every resource they incorporate into teaching. This is why we have standards.”

A ‘made-up issue’?

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) believes any attempt by the Wyoming Legislature to prescribe a curriculum runs afoul of the state’s constitution, she said. The draft bill also threatens to “upset” the state’s long-established divisions between the Legislature and the autonomy of Wyoming State Board of Education to set curriculum and instruction standards, she said.

Setting curriculum standards, she said, “is the expertise and the commitment of the members of the Wyoming State Board of Education, and it’s also done on schedule that allows for meaningful implementation of the standards.

Students gather outside Centennial Jr. High in Casper Sept. 1 for the first day of the 2021-22 school year. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“This is a made-up issue,” said Connolly, a University of Wyoming professor who serves on the legislative education committee. “It’s not a Wyoming issue. It just became part of the national outcry that followed the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s not something that we’ve heard anything about from our parents, our teachers or our schools.”

Language in the draft bill is inaccurate, she said. It states that students shall be taught “the history of slavery and race based discrimination [is] to include the end of slavery and efforts to end discrimination in accordance with the founding principles of the United States.”

Those were not founding principles of the United States, Connolly said.

“They ought to be ashamed of themselves,” Connolly said. “What you have are members of Republican leadership, and the state superintendent, having a press conference about this bill and critical race theory when, that night, there were school boards around the state that needed to be escorted out of their buildings because of the threat of violence. That’s what’s really going on and important right now.” 

The Wyoming State Board of Education does not take positions on legislation, Chairman Ryan Fuhrman said. 

“I will say that regardless of the legislative outcome of this bill, the State Board of Education has valued and continues to value transparency and public involvement in the crafting of standards,” Furhman told WyoFile via email. “Our current system of approving content standards has many opportunities for public input.”

The WEA said it also stands behind the current system.

“Because the State Board of Education has established authority and process for addressing standards, it is outside the purview of the Legislature to legislate changes to standards or curriculum as this bill attempts to do,” the WEA stated.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.