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Candidates refine stances as race for education chief narrows

By Sophia Jeremias,

With one candidate dropping out and a faction of Republican support coalescing around another, the race for superintendent of public instruction is sharpening as Aug. 16 primary election approaches. The winning Republican primary candidate will face Sergio Maldonado, the lone Democrat running for the office, in the November general election.

The Wyoming Republican Party announced on Aug. 1 that Thomas Kelly, one of five candidates running in the Republican primary, dropped out and cast a vote for Brian Schroeder, the governor-appointed incumbent.

Kelly felt “the conservative elites were rallying behind Superintendent Schroeder,” he said, and “it looked like I was going to cause more damage than good by staying in the race.”

Schroeder, who has made headlines for political maneuverings regarding hot-button issues like critical race theory and discrimination policies, has since secured the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, the Casper Star Tribune reported.

He’s not the only candidate to win a high-profile endorsement. U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) announced her support for Megan Degenfelder, a sixth-generation Wyomingite and former chief policy officer at the Wyoming Department of Education.

“Senator Lummis is the epitome of conservative Wyoming values and has spent decades working tirelessly to improve our state,” Degenfelder said in a statement about the endorsement. “What matters most to me is the support of Wyoming leaders who have built this state into what it is today.”

Candidates Jennifer Zerba and Robert White also remain in the GOP primary race.

In a statement to WyoFile, Degenfelder said she remains focused on her campaign message: “to make sure parents are the number one decision makers in their children’s education and to continue fighting to keep anti-American curriculums out of our classrooms.”

Wyoming parents and taxpayers, she said, “are ready for a true conservative” to be their new superintendent of public instruction.

Degenfelder grew up in Wyoming and graduated from the University of Wyoming. She then went on to obtain her master’s degree from the University of International Business and Economics in China, an experience she says enhanced her appreciation for U.S. “constitutional government and freedoms.”

She previously told Wyofile she’d support looking into expanding school choice options in Wyoming. “We have barely scratched the surface here in Wyoming when it comes to school choice,” Degenfelder said. “We can start, you know, looking at the voucher system. I’m extremely supportive of leaving no stone unturned when it comes to school choice.”

When it comes to combating teacher burnout, she said, “working on individual levels with our school districts is the best way to accomplish that.”

As someone who’s worked in the coal, oil and gas industry, Degenfelder said, she’s seen firsthand what skills companies are looking for. “I really would like to bridge the gap between our industry and their needs and the education system,” she said.

“When I started this race I wanted to give Republicans another choice,” said Casper-based candidate Zerba, a substitute teacher and cosmetologist. “Somebody who is not as far right leaning as the others, someone who’s more moderate.”

Zerba said she remains the outlier in the slightly less crowded Republican primary. “I am not in support of charter schools, I am not in support of vouchers, I am not in support of private schools. I am not in support of sectarianism,” Zerba said.

Putting public dollars into private, religious schools violates the Wyoming constitution, she contends. Zerba also said she won’t “allow discrimination against any of our pupils, which is unconstitutional.”

Zerba will also focus on making sure students are prepared for blue-collar jobs. “We are blue collar and we do not have enough people filling those blue-collar jobs,” Zerba previously said.

Her experience as a substitute teacher, Zerba said, gives her a better understanding of educators and the stresses they face.

Schroeder worked as a private Christian school administrator in Cody prior to his appointment by Gov. Mark Gordon as head of the department of education.

During his roughly six-month-stint in office, he championed a Teacher Apprenticeship Program based on a similar model launched in Tennessee as a way to address the state’s teacher shortage.

“The first priority is to cast the vision to lead the nation in education,” Schroeder wrote to WyoFile in April. “There is something deep within the DNA and character of the Wyoming people that sets the stage for this possibility. Education is one of those fields where less is more.”

He expressed similar sentiments in an eight page paper titled “Lead the Nation: A Vision for Wyoming Schools.”

The Wyoming Department of Education sent the paper to legislators on July 6.

The Park County Republicans’ secretary also emailed the document out on July 18, noting in the body of the email, “Hello everyone. It is our intent to inform as many as possible voters … We do not endorse any candidate until after the Primary, however. Please read the attached document.”

While the Park County Republicans continue to assert they’re not violating state law nor party rules, those communiques raised some eyebrows in a state where statute prohibits a party from financially supporting a primary candidate directly, or indirectly.

The vision paper also appears on Schroeder’s campaign website.

In the paper, Schroeder writes, “The evangelists of secularism saw two institutions — government and education — as the perfect twin vehicles through which they would remake society in their image.”

He writes that federal dollars and the requirements that accompany them set the stage for “the social engineers to fundamentally transform our society – through our schools – into a world that is radically contrary to everything we hold dear.”

But Schoeder may not have the authority as superintendent to carry out all aspects of his vision. In June, Schroeder condemned a USDA free-and-reduced-school-lunch program policy update requiring schools to investigate discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, through statements released by the WDE.

Wyoming receives $40 million per year for the program.

“I will support (and encourage) all efforts to begin the process of cutting ties with federal funds while upholding the constitutional mandate to financially sustain Wyoming public education,” Schroeder said.

A WDE spokesperson clarified in July that “Superintendent Schroeder has not withdrawn Wyoming from the USDA Nutrition program, as that is not within his authority,” but that the department also wasn’t complying with the new federal mandate, which could result in the loss of the funds.

Schroeder also expressed his continued support for charter schools, writing in his vision paper “the charter school movement is such a critical piece in this whole thing. It helps break the stronghold of centralization, moves things back to the parents and local control, and brings competition back into the picture.

Robert White, a Rock Springs trona miner, is also running for superintendent. He previously told WyoFile he wants to enhance communications between schools and parents.

He said his top priorities as superintendent would be addressing school shootings, lowering classroom sizes and increasing teacher pay.

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