CHEYENNE – Wyoming’s education chief has joined a vocal faction of Republican lawmakers across the country in expressing distaste for teaching public school children about how racism has shaped American society since the country’s founding.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education published its proposed priorities for American history and civics education, which include “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”
In a news release sent out early Tuesday morning, Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow called the proposal “an alarming move toward federal overreach into district curriculum (that) should be rebuked across party lines,” characterizing it as “an attempt to normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories about America’s history.”
In March, Balow testified at a meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s House Education Committee, calling for civics and history education to return to a “targeted and intentional education about American exceptionalism through the use of our historic documents and other authentic resources.”
American exceptionalism is a theory asserting that the United States – which practiced race-based slavery for more than 200 years and maintained legalized racial segregation until the mid-20th century – is inherently superior to other nations.
Balow was unavailable for comment by press time Tuesday. According to Linda Finnerty, communications director for the Wyoming Department of Education, she was at a previously scheduled tour of schools throughout the state.
Balow’s statement comes amid a wave of legislative action in other states, including Idaho, Utah and Arkansas, banning the use of the curriculum associated with the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” or Critical Race Theory – an academic framework developed in the 1970s, which asserts that race is a concept designed to oppress non-white people.
Balow described the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 project,” (which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”) and Harvard University professor Ibram X. Kendi’s popular anti-racism scholarship as “divisive.”
Her statements Tuesday baffled James Peebles, a historian and founder of Cheyenne’s chapter of Sankofa African Heritage Awareness Inc.
“I am chagrined to hear Supt. Balow, whom the African American community has known and respected for years, speak so contrarily of adding properly taught Black studies to the American history curriculum, which is years in the lapse of Wyoming’s standard curriculum,” Peebles told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
That’s because, back in the fall, Balow seemed to be in support of teaching more Black history in Wyoming, which is about to unroll the Indian Education for All act. The law requires teachers across the state to educate students about “the history, traditional culture and contemporary contributions of Wyoming and regional Native American tribes.”
Last October, Balow appeared by prerecorded video at Sankofa’s annual conference, where participants called for the inclusion of a fuller picture of Black history in Laramie County School District 1’s curriculum, partly in an effort to create a more inclusive learning environment in a district with a documented culture of racist bullying.
She pointed to the work it took to pass the Indian Education for All act as an example that could guide a similar effort to infuse more Black history into Wyoming’s classrooms.
“Start thinking as a community about what is important for all Wyoming students to know about what is important in Black history, Black politics, and especially as it relates to Wyoming as a state,” Balow said at the conference. “I’m happy to have some of those same conversations with you one on one and find out what it is you want students to learn about … Black Wyomingites.”
Although a small percentage of Wyomingites identify as Black, the state nonetheless has a long history of racism. Some of those stories include a law requiring racial segregation in schools with more than 15 non-white students, the lynching of a Black man in Laramie in 1904 and the extinction of the all-Black homestead of Empire not long after.
Teaching students about those and other instances of racism in Wyoming, as well as highlighting Black people’s successes and innovations here, is for the benefit of children of all races in the state, Peebles said.
Balow’s most recent statement “shows a lack of common courtesy and respect to the diverse children of the state of Wyoming,” Peebles said. “(I)t is disheartening to know that Jillian Balow prefers neglecting the fulfillment of our children’s education just to satisfy her political and racial biases.”
LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown said the district is committed to bringing a “fair and balanced” approach to the classroom, and has no intention of teaching students anything but the facts about the past.
“Students bring different topics to the classroom at different times, and when that happens, we address them. We’ve had students who have brought the topic of the Holocaust not actually happening, and we’ve had to have that conversation,” Brown said.
“It’s not our job to make them change their mind and make them believe what everyone else believes. But, it’s pretty hard when they bring that up to not have a conversation about that and leave them with other objective views about (what) actually happened.”