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Opinion: Fear and loathing in Wyoming’s politics, classrooms

Opinion by Kerry Drake, WyoFile

The leaders of Wyoming’s Republican Party sure do love a good wedge issue. How better to divert attention from the fact that the state’s political super majority has all of the power, all of the responsibility and absolutely no solutions to the state’s tremendous fiscal problems?

So long as we stay busy debating “human heartbeat” bills, eliminating gun-free zones and defending our sacred public restrooms from the scourge of transgender women, the party’s pooh-bahs win.

Well, nuts to that. I want Republicans to know that many of us are on to them.

So why, you may ask, am I bothering to write about the GOP’s fire-and-brimstone opposition to critical race theory — its latest boogeyman, and something that’s not even taught in Wyoming?

Because when the state’s most veteran legislator and its chief school official waste precious time pursuing remedies to problems that don’t exist — when they govern by Republican talking point, instead of Wyoming reality — they must be called out.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that recognizes systemic racism is part of American society, and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish.

Taught mostly at universities and law schools, CRT analyzes why civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s has not been more effective at lessening the social and economic disparities between white Americans and Black Americans, Native Americans and other people of color.

It’s been around for decades, but former President Donald Trump made it a rallying cry last fall when he banned federal agencies from conducting CRT-based racial sensitivity training. Trump cultists pounced, and critical race theory suddenly became their go-to villain.

Don’t worry, the state party still has its own Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) in its crosshairs for voting to impeach Trump. But the election is more than a year away, and CRT is something the GOP can scare the masses with right now.

The anti-CRT banner was picked up in May and flown proudly by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who claimed that President Joe Biden was promoting a CRT “draft rule” that tries to “normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories” about American history.

There is no draft rule to oppose, and Balow knows it — or at least she should. Biden’s administration is offering grants, not mandates, to schools that teach programs to address systemic racism and the country’s legacy of slavery.

“History and civics should not be secondary to political whim,” Balow wrote in an op-ed published in Wyoming newspapers. “Instead, history and civics instruction should engage students in objective, nonpartisan analyses of historical and current events.”

In a statement praising the superintendent, her state party slammed CRT for “seeking to destroy America’s moral fiber and promote falsehoods about the founding of our nation.”

What part of history do party officials oppose teaching? Is it the more than two centuries of slavery and the nation’s bloodiest war to finally end the barbaric practice that makes them queasy? How about the civil rights movement to promote equality and the troubling racial problems the country is still facing?

I don’t want to destroy an entire country’s moral fiber, but I think students in 2021 should be encouraged to discuss both the Black Lives Matter movement and how it developed, and the rise of white supremacy in our nation. To understand today’s problems, it’s important to know about racial injustice throughout history.

Not surprisingly, CRT is being thrust into the Legislature’s agenda. It doesn’t belong there.

After almost 42 years in the Legislature, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) is the longest-serving lawmaker in Wyoming’s history. At last week’s Joint Education Committee meeting in Saratoga, co-chairman Scott offered a proposal to establish an “equality and equal rights” curriculum based on principles in the Wyoming Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

The concept was killed on a tie vote, which was the right decision. Scott will likely sponsor a similar measure during the budget session in February, where it should — but may not — meet the same fate.

I don’t have a problem with the content. Scott wants students, in an age-appropriate manner, to be taught about slavery and racial discrimination, and that it is wrong to be unfair or treat anyone differently based on the color of their skin or ethnic background.

But the State Board of Education has the authority to set standards for K-12 instructional directives, not the Legislature. It shouldn’t be a state law. When did Wyoming Republicans abandon the sacrosanct principle of local control?

I am also concerned about what motivated Scott to advance this idea. He explained he did it to head off any federal effort to mandate CRT curricula in Wyoming schools by authorizing education officials to refuse federal funds and not comply with the requirement.

Rejecting federal dollars has been a recurring theme for Scott in recent years, from Medicaid expansion to the American Rescue Plan. The latter funds, it’s worth noting, spared our schools from the draconian budget cuts Scott wanted to make. Now he’s trying to keep the panel he leads from developing a state solution to our K-12 fiscal crisis.

Scott’s empty rhetoric on this issue is insulting. There is no effort to mandate teaching critical race theory, nor tie any federal funds to such a plan. There is, however, a long shameful tradition of Republicans like Scott using scare tactics to confuse and control voters.

Trump, Balow and the GOP message machine have painted an awfully scary picture — riots, destroyed monuments, Marxist take-overs and indoctrinated, self-loathing white kids. (By the way, those monuments they’re so concerned about depict Confederate soldiers, traitors to the nation whose principles are supposedly so revered by the extreme right.)

Donald Trump — who encouraged and activated white supremacists throughout his presidency, including the Jan. 6 insurrection —  is the last person I want telling students anything about racial issues. Wyoming deserves better from the state’s elected school chief than parroting fear-stoked lines from the nation’s worst “teacher.”



WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.