(bright music) - Not since the 19th century, as someone so young as Megan Degenfelder that held one of Wyoming's top statewide elected positions.
In 2012, she was honored as the top female graduate at the University of Wyoming.
A decade later, at age 33, she was elected state superintendent of Public Construction.
I'm Steve Peck at WyomingPBS.
This is "Wyoming Chronicle."
(excited music) - [Announcer] Funding for this program is made possible in part by: The Wyoming Humanities Council, helping Wyoming take a closer look at life through the humanities.
And by the members of the WyomingPBS Foundation.
Thank you for your support.
- Thank you for having me.
- Viewers of our shows have heard me say this from time to time.
I was a newspaper man for Nyon 40 years in Wyoming before coming to work for WyomingPBS.
And of all the topics that we covered consistently, the one that generated the most opinions, the strongest opinions, the widest differences in opinion, and the greatest number of people who wanted to share their opinions was K-12 education.
My observation was somewhat flippantly here is that everyone's an expert on it and they want you to know that they're an expert on it.
And it also sort of suffers from what I would call those were the days syndrome.
That the way we all went through K-12 education and we remember how that went and it was better that way.
Do you find any of that to be true in your experience?
- You know, I think absolutely that K-12 education is unique in the fact that every single person in this state is a stakeholder and they all have an opinion about K-12 education.
And so I see the role of state superintendent, number one role really is that bridging the gap between all of those many stakeholders.
I've lived in various counties and communities across the state and recognizing how unique our voices are across Wyoming and how unique those perspectives on education are.
I really believe that that's one of the most important roles of my job.
- I was driving this morning along a mostly deserted Wyoming roadway, interstate 25 as it happened.
And going along, there was not a residential building in sight.
Out in the middle of nowhere, I looked down on a side road, there goes a school bus.
I don't know what who they were picking up and where, but whatever it was, it had to be a small school district.
Wyoming is a complicated state for education, isn't it?
Because we have school districts where the graduating class, senior class might be fewer than 10, and we have some where it's in the hundreds.
It's a big state dispersed.
Why in the world would you want to get involved in that.
- (laughs) It is absolutely diverse and that's what makes Wyoming so great.
That's what makes our education system so great.
I love this state.
I have been afforded so many opportunities all throughout my life from my public education experience all the way to our great economy and the ability to build a career here in my home state.
And so that realization along with the fact that we have to continue to provide those same opportunities to the next generation.
We have to have an education system that's nimble enough to meet the ever-changing needs of the economy is just really what pushed me in into this role.
And I think in terms of deciding whether or not to run for office.
- A year from now, we'll be in a presidential election where it's highly likely or certainly probable, possible, that there'll be a rematch between an 81-year-old candidate and a 77-year-old candidate.
You're sort of at the opposite end of this discussion.
You're in your early 30s, correct?
I haven't sifted through every single detail of every person who's ever held your office or one of the five statewide elected offices, but you may be the youngest one ever.
Was that a factor at all in your decision making first of all?
Did it ever occur to you, "I wonder if I'm ready for this."
Or was that not an issue at all?
- I just think that it's so incredibly important that the people of my generation, the millennial generation, have a seat at the table in government and policy making.
Not only do we provide a diverse perspective, but millennials, Gen Z, we really are the future of Wyoming.
And so those decisions that are being made here today in our state or on the federal level, those are issues that we are going to have to live with and face in our future.
And so it's just so critical to be part of the conversation.
And so I'm very excited, a very exciting time to be a young leader in politics.
- There is no job description that I could find of what the state superintendent of public construction is supposed to do.
Other than the very, very basic one, general overseeing of K-12 education.
What do you bring to it?
So I actually bring a unique perspective to this role.
I'm not a teacher by trade, I'm an economist.
I've spent the majority of my career in the private sector, but also worked in education for the state department.
And I think that that will really bode well in that again, every person in this state is a stakeholder in education and has ideas about our education system.
And I view the role of state superintendent as bridging that gap, bringing all those stakeholders together, and then finding the path forward that we can move education policy that makes sense for all people in Wyoming.
- You've been in office for a couple of months now.
What's the 60-day progress report?
How's it been going for you personally so far?
- It's been going really well.
We are off to the races and it's a really exciting time.
I'm just so honored to be in this position.
There's a particular moment from Inauguration Day that has stayed with me in the last few weeks.
- [Steve] What's that?
- And it is right after the prayer service and we were riding a horse drawn carriage up to the capitol and the snow was lightly falling, there wasn't any wind.
And as the capitol drew near, I just really felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude for those that have come before me in public service and all of the work that has been done within these capitol walls.
Without that work of the times passed as a female, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to vote, let alone run for statewide office.
And then that just overwhelming sense of duty to really give back and to make my state a better place.
And it really is fast and furious these first couple of months.
I would say perhaps one of the most challenging things about coming into statewide office is that within mere days of being sworn in, the legislative session begins.
And not only are you tasked with now being the executive of the state agency and moving your initiatives forward, but then of jumping into the legislative session.
And the session moves at an accelerated pace.
And so you have the choice to either jump in and go running or be left behind.
And all the while, there's the work of the many boards and commissions.
I've already attended UW board of trustees, Community College Commission meetings, and the State Loan Investment Board that is comprised of myself and the four other statewide electeds.
We've already met multiple times in the last two months.
- I think that's a topic that a lot of typical voters or perhaps viewers don't think much about.
You get together periodically as the big five as we call it.
With these other boards and commissions, the topics that really don't have anything to do with K-12 education yet that's part of the job.
Do you enjoy that aspect of it?
- I really do.
A lot of my background is in the mineral industry and coal and oil and gas and I come from an agriculture family.
So that state land work is very important to me.
And of course, it indirectly impacts schools, well directly really in terms of funding because those state lands were obviously set aside by the federal government to pay for the common school.
So it all really works together even when it's not directly education related.
- Let's talk a little bit of politics here.
You decided to run for office.
In a primary election in which the incumbent superintendent was a candidate and he was an appointed candidate seeking to be elected the term for the first time.
That's not the most common thing in the world to do, to challenge an incumbent.
Why did you decide that this was the time to do that?
- Sure, so I did put my name forth for the vacancy position and was ultimately not selected.
After going through that process, I just felt really compelled to bring my message out to voters and to allow voters to decide who was best able to serve in this position.
- What do you want people to see from your office, from your position when they look to the state superintendent?
- Great question.
I think that the state right now is desperate for leadership and education.
We've taken a lot of time to collect information and feedback across the state.
The governor's ride committee really laid the groundwork in gathering information of what people want education.
And we're really at this precipice of completely changing our education system and taking action.
And so I think that that's what the people are looking for.
They want action from politicians from the Department of Education.
They want us to rethink the education system and again, move away from that one size fits all model of students and really think innovatively about our education system.
- Everything's more politicized now than it used to be.
Both of your predecessors in the job gained the job by being appointed to fill of agency.
Now Superintendent Balow was then elected in her own right, but that's how she first gained the job as well.
And that process is more overtly political general election is because it involves the Republican party officials in this case getting together and deciding as a relatively small group to which candidates to put forward.
How political are you?
Are you an active in Republican politics?
Do you intend to be?
Do you wish maybe that you didn't have to be as much as some people might wish it?
What's your view on politics and the superintendent's office?
- Sure, so I've been involved in Republican Wyoming politics since I was a really young student.
I remember being involved in campaigns in junior high school and serving as a volunteer page at the Republican State Convention.
So have been very, very much involved.
I worked for now Senator Cynthia Luis in her first congressional campaign as a college student and then was involved in college Republicans.
So it's really been a deeply held value in my life, those Republican values and that political side of our government.
And so when it comes to roles like the state superintendent of Public Instruction, I do believe in the partisan nature of it, whether you like it or not, these issues are political issues and it's very important to balance our education system, which of course should be void of political agendas with the desires of the people in our state.
- How much interaction have you had with legislators here in your first few weeks on the job?
- I've been very involved with this year's legislative session.
I think with my previous experience in the legislature as a lobbyist and having lived all across the state and being a lifelong Wyoming, I've really developed relationships with many of those in the legislative branch.
So we've really been able to hit the ground running and work together in a very meaningful way.
- Sometimes, an elected official who is not a legislator might have something that he or she wants to get done, and other times, it's, I'm here to inform, to contribute, to testify, to advise.
Was there anything heading into this legislative session, legislatively speaking, that you hoped would happen or did you approach the job that way here in your first couple months?
- Well of course, we're always hoping to hit the ground running on my initiatives.
That's really important.
You don't wanna let one legislative session go to waste in the short four-year term.
And so school choice was a really important one for me.
And out of that came the charter school bill, which we've really been a part of.
And then now I'm looking forward, it's really about setting up the interim.
That partnership with the joint education committee and what topics that they research and make decisions about.
And then those that my staff and myself, we can move forward that maybe don't directly involve the legislative branch yet.
- You've mentioned your initiatives as superintendent, you're hitting the ground running.
What are some of those that you want Wyoming to know about?
So I came off the campaign trail really with three key areas.
And so right now I'm working to implement those into a strategic plan.
And a lot of these issues are falling out into about six key areas.
The first is parental empowerment and eliminating political bias.
That'll be through creating transparency and curriculum in our entire system and providing more choices for parents.
The second one is reducing bureaucracy.
Looking at ways that we can implement full regulatory reform for our school districts and those requirements that have built up over the years.
We want our districts to be innovative and for our teachers to be able to teach.
Third is implementing greater career technical education, better preparing kids for jobs, more of those pathways and internship opportunities.
Fourth is improving literacy.
Fifth is supporting and valuing our teachers as we talked about, the teacher retention and recruitment task force.
And then sixth are some of those supporting efforts and that includes mental health, that includes civics and literacy education, financial literacy education, and other areas like early childhood and that pipeline from pre-K all the way to post-secondary.
- Sounds simple enough.
That's a big job, but this is what you intend to bring to it.
- You think it can be done?
- It's a tall order in four short years, but our voters, our state are relying on me and our department to take action in those areas.
And so it's gonna be a collaborative effort partnering with the State Board of Education, the Governor's Office, the legislature, local school districts, and in really doing this in a grassroots sort of way instead of that top-down approach in our bubble here in the capitol in Cheyenne.
- You mentioned the charter school bill a couple of times.
Let's begin with this.
What's a charter school and what isn't a charter school?
- That is a great question, because I think we've seen through this process that there's a lot of misinformation out there.
And states do charter schools differently.
And so what was really important with this bill was to create a framework in which charter schools can be authorized by an independent authorizer that's made up of experts.
That's not political, that understand what makes a good or bad charter school and which one should be authorized.
- So it's a public school?
- It's a public school, yes.
I think that's very important to note is that we're talking about charter schools that are part of the public school system.
And so that leads to the second component that was really important to achieve and that was equitable funding and accountability.
So being part of that public school system, these students, they are guaranteed an equitable funding for their education per our constitution.
And so making sure that that funding is adequate and equitable to our traditional public schools and that that accountability piece is in there as well.
We don't wanna be pick picking winners and losers in our schools, but this really what it does, is within the current public system allows for greater specialization, greater choice for parents that can still be within the public system.
- A charter school differs from my nephew's K5 school, for example.
- So there's another board, there's a separate charter board for that school.
And so they're gonna have all of that local control ability that a traditional district would have.
So that's around policies and procedures with the school, that's around deciding curriculum and textbooks.
And so all of that is really important in driving a charter school.
And so it really just gives a lot of more autonomy and what I like to see is charter schools that are very specialized, maybe one could pop up that that's focused on career vocational education, for students that are not planning to go that college pathway.
And so really, there's a lot of neat things that can happen with charter schools.
This bill is the first step to even allow them to be possible in Wyoming.
- The impression I get is that in the past, charter schools were viewed by some as sort of a threat to the traditional K-12 system.
And what you're trying to, what state is trying to do, what the superintendent's office are trying to do is make that less so part of the bigger picture that is under the same umbrella.
Fair to say?
Charter schools are just another piece of our public education system and gone are the days where we can have a one size fits all model for education.
All of our kids learn differently.
And so that if we can have this specialized education and if parents and families can have the ability to make choices of where best meets those needs, that's really what we want in Wyoming.
- Several bills came up this year that involved K-12 education.
Necessarily will involve would or will involve your department.
We can talk about some of those.
One that got a lot of attention was the idea to use the recognized terminology transgender students and we're typically talking about.
Boys, biological birth boys who may through either surgery or medication or in some cases, simple self-reidentification, might wanna participate in girls athletics.
What are the key issues here?
And did your department, your office take a stand on that bill?
- So I'm the coach of the University of Wyoming Women's Rugby Team.
- [Steve] Are you?
- And so for me, my number one priority for my girls is their safety and the fairness and access to opportunities within the sport.
So fundamentally, I do believe in protecting girls sports and the original intentions of Title IX.
Now that's not to say that our transgender students shouldn't have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities and sports.
Our transgender students, they matter.
And I understand that this bill could have some frustrations and the eligibility commission process could have some frustrations, but it was important for me to work on that because it's the most fair process that I can think of.
And so essentially, what the bill does is it places a ban on transgender women in high school sports, excuse me, I believe it was amended to include junior high sports.
And if that ban is struck down in court, which it may very well be, then the process goes to an Eligibility Commission.
This Eligibility Commission is appointed by the High School Activities Association and is meant to determine eligibility based on science, based on maybe hormonal levels, really facts around the case that the High School Activities Association does every day.
Determining eligibility, fairness, safety.
And so it would go through that process in order to see if a child is allowed to compete.
- How relevant do you think it is so far in Wyoming or is it more this more of a proactive approach or is it more of a corrective approach?
What have you learned about that?
- It's a little bit of both.
I think it's proactive, but we are seeing some instances around the state and as I traveled and campaigned this summer, there were school districts, school board members that had indicated that they needed support on this.
This really is a statewide issue.
And fundamentally, I do believe in local control.
I think in most issues, we want local school districts to make those decisions.
In this particular case, those decisions impact other school districts in our cross-state competition.
And so that's where this does need to be addressed at the state level.
And again, we're working on this in a Wyoming way that we make sure that all kids are recognized, but we do it in the fairest way possible.
- Among the other issues that was legislatively addressed this year had to do with some book controversies regarding school libraries primarily.
And it's full, unfortunately, and I think unavoidably of words such as obscene and improper and unacceptable and things that are hard to define, but still, that didn't stop the legislature from wanting to dig into it a little bit.
- Sure, so there were several bills that sought to address some of these issues that we're seeing in libraries.
I don't believe any of them were successful, but I am dedicated to working on that in the interim and seeing how we can at least provide guidance at the state level around appropriateness in books.
But when we start to see sexually explicit material in library books that are available for students that are under the age of sexual consent, then that's where it begins to be problematic.
And so my plan moving into the interim is to develop statewide guidance because again, another area where districts have been reaching out of, we would like guidance on this, what are the best practices?
And that's the role of the state that we need to play.
- A common phrase used among all certainly lawmakers and others, is that when it comes to K-12 education, we believe in local control.
You've said it here yourself.
Where do you find the balance there?
- It's a great question and I think we're always trying to find that balance.
For me, especially in the executive branch, I believe it's my goal to, to get ahead of these issues and to try to find solutions before we have to turn to changes within statute.
That will be my plan in the next four years of some of these difficult issues that we're gonna face them head on.
We're gonna figure out if guidance is appropriate or how we can create best practices to spread around the state.
And in some cases there may be a need for that state statute change.
And so we'll be a part of that process all the way through.
- Is it ever your objective that K-12 policy issue would be decided in court?
- Absolutely not.
I think that that's the worst case scenario that it gets to that point.
Some issues do have to go down that road.
As we're looking at education funding, some of these really difficult issues.
But again, that's the beauty of our democracy and having those three equal branches of government.
- In his state of the state address, and during an earlier interview that he gave with us at the beginning of the legislative session, Governor Gordon talked about his RIDE initiative and I believe RIDE is re-imagining.
And delivering education, thank you.
We have an off camera helper who's proving invaluable here today.
He mentioned you as a participant in that, a contributor to it, a partner in it.
What's been your role in working on that with the governor and others and what are its key points as you see them?
- Sure, so the governor's RIDE Committee really took the first step in looking at what folks around the state want our education system and in what they see as potential changes.
And so they worked to gather feedback from all across the state on these important issues.
And that's why I think it's a really exciting time for me to be stepping in as a leader in education because we've gathered that information, much of which reflects what I also heard along the campaign trail, along the 40,000 miles.
- This is something that voters have on their minds is what you're saying?
- Absolutely, yes.
And so we have that information and now we're really at this point where we can either let that information sit on a shelf or we can take action.
And this is where I can see the state superintendent and the governor working collaboratively to really move meaningful education policy forward.
Meaningful policy that people across the state believe in.
- Sometimes these are issues at the executive level that don't need to involve the legislature necessarily.
There's a lot of work that we can do straight away on some of these issues.
A few to note from the governor's RIDE Initiative was that competency-based learning, the career pathway options for students, student and teacher mental health, and that early childhood pipeline.
- We haven't really talked about the overriding overarching issue that the legislature always has involving K-12 education.
That's money, that's funding.
Where do you see funding for K-12 education now as compared to where you think it ought to be?
- Of course, our state constitution mandates that we provide an adequate and equitable education for students no matter where they live in the state of Wyoming.
That's a good thing.
We have always prioritized education from our forefathers to current day legislators.
And so we wanna make sure that we have a state-of-the-art high class education system that comes down to the education system that is determined within statute or otherwise known as the basket of goods.
And so I think we continually need to be looking at the basket of goods.
When I worked for the State department, we pushed for the computer science edition in the state basket of goods.
That was the first time in 20 years that the basket had been updated.
I think that that's too long and that we've gotta continually be evaluating that basket and looking at what is that appropriate education and then we determine funding of that.
- There's lots of news coverage headlines almost every day.
Why teachers are leaving the profession?
What does it take to keep getting the best and the brightest into the teaching profession in Wyoming?
- This summer, I actually met with about 45 of the 48 school districts and the issue of the teacher shortage was even more abundantly clear in visiting with them one-on-one.
This is an issue that we're seeing in Wyoming, we're seeing across the country.
If we don't have teachers, we don't have schools and if we don't have schools, we don't have communities.
So we have to get to the bottom of this issue and make sure that we're attracting and retaining our great teachers in this state.
One of the first things I did upon taking office was launch the Teacher Retention and Recruitment Task Force because there's simply not one quick fix to a complicated issue such as this.
And so that task force is busy.
They're working right now to come up with all sorts of explanations and policy changes that we can make that better attract our teachers.
And so that will dovetail into a lot of our work with the Teacher Apprenticeship Program and really just looking at ways that we continue to value and recruit teachers in the state of Wyoming.
- Thanks for leading me to one more topic.
The Teacher Apprenticeship Program, that's something new.
It's a way to qualify someone to be a K-12 public school teacher in a different way.
Tell us more about that.
- So this initiative actually began under the prior superintendent's administration as a means to address some of these teacher shortage challenges, the Teacher Apprenticeship Program however, it does add a lot of different components that I would argue actually is more intensive than the traditional pathway to become a teacher.
And so there's a lot of mentoring component of that.
It's a lot of folks that maybe have worked in the school system for a long time without a teacher licensure, but they don't have time or the ability to go through a traditional four-year college degree to become a teacher.
So this apprenticeship program is meant to support them along the way and make sure that they have all of the credentials in order to become a full-time teacher.
- Is it being implemented now or will be soon?
- So we have a couple of pilot districts that are starting to work on this.
The devil will always be in the details and especially when it comes to funding.
- Megan Degenfelder, state Superintendent of Public Public Construction for the state of Wyoming.
Thanks for being with us today and good luck.
- Thank you.