Lawmakers defeat bills targeting Wyo. public schools and libraries

Public schools and libraries enjoy broad support in the Cowboy State, so many residents were worried when the Wyoming Legislature’s so-called “Freedom Caucus” brought a series of bills attacking them.

Thankfully, halfway through the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers have voted down—or are poised to—multiple bills that would divert taxpayer money from public schools to private schools and homeschooling, and that would criminalize librarians and teachers for “obscene” books found in their collections.

Freedom Caucus members have so far been unable to push any of these bills far enough to land them on the governor’s desk, suggesting that their brand of fundamentalism in government still has not quite taken a solid hold in Wyoming.

Public money, private schools

House Bill 194 – Wyoming Freedom Scholarship Act” would have created a school voucher program that violates the Wyoming Constitution. It was sponsored by Rep. Ocean Andrew (R-Jelm), a member of the so-called “Freedom Caucus.”

The proposal would have diverted public money into an account that people could use to pay for private, religious, or homeschooling expenses. It would have provided a $6,000 annual allowance to parents and guardians for every K-12 student outside the public school system. 

““No money of the state shall ever be given or appropriated to any sectarian or religious society or institution.”

Wyoming Constitution

The “school choice” program would have diverted $22 million from the state’s public school funding in the first year, and $44 million every year thereafter.

Tate Mullen, WEA’s government relations director, said the bill and its funding mechanism would violate the Wyoming Constitution and take away resources from our best-in-the-nation school system.

“In attempting to privatize education, this bill sought to siphon essential funds away from our already-underfunded public education system,” Mullen said. “It would leave students vulnerable to a sub-par education delivered by uncertified education providers.”

Rep. Ocean Andrew

HB-194 would have provided public money to pay for private religious schools. But the Wyoming Constitution explicitly says: “No money of the state shall ever be given or appropriated to any sectarian or religious society or institution.”

Furthermore, while HB-194 would have granted money for homeschooling, the state constitution forbids funding any educational program “not under the absolute control of the state.”

Even as the “Freedom Caucus” attempts to siphon state funds away from public schools, the WEA and a number of Wyoming school districts are suing the Legislature for its refusal to grant teachers a pay raise at a time of record inflation. 

Thankfully, the House Education Committee tabled HB-194, killing it for the session. A mirror bill in the Senate passed by a 17-14 vote, despite its clear unconstitutionality. But it has not been assigned to a House committee. 

Criminal librarians

Right alongside their bills to attack public schools, Freedom Caucus members brought bills that would punish librarians with steep fines and jail time for having “obscene” books available to students. 

Who decides what’s “obscene”? Increasingly, groups like Moms for Liberty have anointed themselves for the task.

The most radical measure, “HB 87 – Crimes of obscenity–revisions,” had a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a fine up to $6,000 per violation.

Librarians and their supporters came out in droves to fight these bills. Wyoming Library Association President Conrrado Saldivar asked a House committee how they expect schools and libraries to recruit and retain employees with that kind of punishment hanging over their heads simply for doing their jobs? 

“It’s going to force librarians to leave their professions,” he said.

The bill would have removed exemptions for librarians—as well as employees of colleges, museums, and schools—so that they could be prosecuted if their collections were found to contain “obscene” materials. 

Rep. Jeanette Ward

Who decides what’s “obscene”? Increasingly, groups like Moms for Liberty have anointed themselves for the task, executing what amounts to a sex-obsessed witch hunt. In Gillette, a group tried to have their local public library director arrested because the library had books that contained sexual descriptions. Law enforcement declined to pursue the case, but had HB-87 passed, the story could have ended differently.

HB-87 was sponsored by freshman Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper), a former Illinois school board member who bragged during her campaign for the Wyoming House that she fought the “transgender mob” in her former state, and vowed to do the same thing in Wyoming. Ward’s bill would also have added drawings and cartoons to the list of content that could be considered “child pornography.” 

The freshman Freedom Caucus member was true to her word, but fortunately the effort failed. HB-87 died in the House Revenue Committee, 6 – 3. The only votes for passage were cast by Ward’s fellow Freedom Caucus members, including its chairman, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), whose wife won a seat last election on the Campbell County Library Board.

A majority of the House committee members said the proposed law is a local control issue, and decisions of school boards and officials have done a good job resolving conflicts over perceived “obscenity.”

The book banning efforts will continue

Two other book-banning bills failed to make it out of their respective committees. “Senate File 283 – Promoting obscenity,” sponsored by Rep. Christopher Knapp (R-Gillette), would have removed exceptions to the state’s obscenity law that have protected librarians and educators. 

Meanwhile, “SF-177 – Promoting obscenity-educational exception amendment,” which would have repealed the same exemptions that Ward’s bill did, was withdrawn by the sponsor, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle). She suggested it could be a good topic for the Joint Education Committee to consider during the 2023 “interim” session.

Proposals brought by the so-called "Freedom Caucus" to divert public money to private and religious schools and to criminalize librarians for "obscene" books have all failed this session.