Lawmakers in the Classroom: The Battle for Wyoming’s Schools

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Lawmakers in the Classroom: The Battle for Wyoming’s Schools
Lawmakers in the Classroom: The Battle for Wyoming’s Schools

By Geoffrey O’Gara ,

“There’s a disconnect between the education community and the general public,” said Bill Schilling, chair of a legislative advisory committee on education meeting in October at the Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission building in Casper. Peering sternly over his bifocals, he reeled off a series of negative responses from a public opinion survey; high school graduation rates are unacceptably low, senior exit exams should be required, students and teachers must be held accountable … The disapproving list went on.

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One of the meeting’s participants complained that the survey was incomplete; educators needed more time to respond, and the quality of the questions themselves was questionable.

The chairman, whose day job is running the Wyoming Business Alliance, cut her off. “We won’t discuss the questions.” He acknowledged the survey was not scientific, but said it was a gut reaction showing the Wyoming public’s dissatisfaction with public education.

The chastened speaker, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, sat back in her chair. “You and I will have to agree to disagree. You are the chairman and I respect that.”  It was rough handling, bordering on disrespectful, for one of Wyoming’s top elected officials. But Hill’s two years on the job have had plenty of rough moments, particularly in her dealings with state legislators and their surrogates, and that’s not likely to end soon.

The gymnasium for the newly constructed Big Horn Middle School/High School

The gymnasium for the newly constructed Big Horn Middle School/High School, which opened in Autumn 2011. New schools and improved facilities have been a part of the state’s vigorous education spending agenda, but results appear to be mixed. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“The Department of Education is in a shambles,” says Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “They’ve had over a 40 percent turnover in the last two years, there’s a lack of direction, they’re not complying with statutes. It’s almost to the point of being obstructive.”

That view was underlined recently in a report by two Legislative Services Office liaisons hired to monitor the department’s efforts in following legislative directives to evaluate how well public schools, teachers and students are doing in Wyoming. The report cited “a loss to institutional knowledge, experience and capacity” and a “misunderstanding of, disregard for, or stated opposition” to the law requiring accountability for educators and schools. Misplaced priorities, delays in meeting federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, and usurping duties of the state Board of Education were also cited.

Hill’s initial response was aggressive. “The good ol’ boys are at work and they’re pretty nasty,” she told the Casper Star-Tribune. Hill is aware that many legislators, including Republicans, rooted for her opponent in the 2010 election, former Democratic State Sen. Mike Massie of Laramie. And last spring, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), introduced a bill to make the Superintendent post an appointed, rather than elected, position, which many considered an indirect indictment of Hill’s brief tenure.

But in an interview last week, she was more conciliatory. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity,” she said of the liaisons’ report. “There is information they don’t have. People don’t understand the calculations … We have to work side by side.”

In a sense, the Department of Education and the legislature are working side by side. Both have embarked on expensive efforts to develop programs to hold schools accountable for education, which is not as simple as it sounds. You have to test or appraise what students know, how teachers teach, and how schools are run. Then you have to double-check, consider variables like socio-economic status, and adjust for changing demographics and academic environments. The legislature has hired its own consultants, and tasked them to bypass the Department of Education and bring their proposals to the state Board of Education, an appointed policy board with almost no staff. Hill’s department, meanwhile, is doing show-and-tell around the state on its own pilot accountability program, a partially-formed system that she says “we’ll improve as we go along.”

It’s like the parallel play you see in small children; two kids on opposite sides of the sandbox, not speaking, not sharing, but imitating each other, doing essentially the same thing autonomously. An administrator in one of Wyoming’s mid-size school districts, whose role in developing state accountability policy requires anonymity, said, “It makes no sense to anyone out here in the sticks.”

*     *     *      *

During a decade of rising state revenue from booming energy industries, Wyoming has poured ever-larger resources into improving its schools and the success of its students. In recent years, legislators, and voters, have started asking for results. They want to know if the new buildings, the better-paid teachers, the classroom coaches, and the infernal tests are paying off. Sometimes the answer is yes – test scores have improved over the years, though not as dramatically as some would like. By other measures, the answer might be no – the dropout rate from Wyoming high schools remains high (over 20 percent don’t finish high school).

“It takes a long time to turn around,” says Mary Kay Hill, an aide to Gov. Matt Mead who has worked for several previous Superintendents. “My personal observation is that we’re seeing a positive trend.”

Still, there are confusing signals. This fall, some 40 percent of Wyoming schools were deemed not to be achieving “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), a mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind act to improve student achievement. In recent years, legislators trying to spur educators have debated carrot and stick methods – merit pay for good teachers, removal of tenure so bad teachers can be fired – and various methods of evaluating educational success. They passed the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act two years ago, beginning a lengthy process to develop ways of evaluating schools, teachers and students. In 2012, they put the Board of Education in charge, a move that underlined the Department of Education’s limited role in setting policy.

They’ll be back on the issue again in 2013, making the law ever more explicit in hopes that the Department of Education can’t avoid doing it the legislature’s way, and possibly adding more staff and responsibilities for the Board. It seems redundant, and it appears to pit the Board against the agency it sets policy for, an outgrowth of legislators’ frustration with Cindy Hill’s administration.

“It’s just not getting done,” says Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). “I don’t know if it was feigned or actual confusion, but things weren’t carried out. … It doesn’t feel like cooperation, it’s push and pull at every turn.”

Cindy Hill

Cindy Hill, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Among the “things not getting done” cited by the LSO liaisons in their report was the department’s compilation of data on schools’ success or failure to make AYP under the No Child Left Behind act. The state’s initial release, in September, indicated more than half of Wyoming’s schools failed to meet AYP, which measures progress toward the 2014 goal of having all students proficient in core subject areas. There were complaints about missing data and misapplied formulas, and in October the department issued revised figures showing only 40 percent of Wyoming schools falling short. Hill says she has asked to respond to this and other charges in the report at a December 12 meeting of the legislature’s Joint Education Committee and the Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability.

Hill contends the legislature is accustomed to an education agency that takes whatever lawmakers put on the table, and soldiers on to make school districts comply without applying its own expertise. What’s different now, she says, is that she is staffing the agency with educators, “and I’ve said to my staff, we’re not going to break the law, but it’s going to be different. Less top down, more teachers involved.”

But, even the new staff is a sore point with legislators. They say the extraordinary turnover at the department (48 percent in two years) is part of the problem. “You spend millions of dollars in state employees to develop expertise – you develop all that institutional knowledge, and then you have an election and bring in new people,” says Rep. Harshman.

That’s part of why he introduced his bill last year to make the Superintendent position an appointment by the governor, rather than an elected post. In a budget year, it would have taken a two-thirds vote of the 60-member House to introduce the bill. Harshman’s bill had 39 votes (several changed votes from ‘yea’ to ‘nay’ after its failure was apparent).

Gov. Matt Mead has not voiced an opinion on whether the education post should be elected or appointed. Mary Kay Hill, his education policy expert, says that with the task of public education growing ever more complex and broad, “the chief operating officer is consumed with other things, like the SLIB board and ribbon cuttings.”

(As one of five elected state wide officials, the Superintendent serves on several decision-making boards that oversee agencies like the Office of State Lands and Investments.)

The Governor has not been entirely hands-off in the Department of Education controversies. Charged by the legislature with watch-dogging the department’s assessment work, executive staff found a number of Education employees funded to do assessment work were actually working on other things, and some positions not funded for assessment were doing assessment. It sounds like dull bureaucratic nit-picking — only a few positions were involved — but state appropriations require that position ‘align’ so that the right amount of resources be applied to different department tasks.

Then the Department of Education informed the Governor’s office that there were actually around 30 positions — the number changed a few times — that needed to be realigned, and the Governor called a halt. According to Hill, the Governor has not accepted the agency’s representations, and is asking for a review of every position in Education. Says Hill: “It will take an enormous amount of time.”

Harshman notes that few other states still elect their education chief. “They don’t want education politicized.” But last week, Harshman had not decided yet whether he would introduce the bill again. He was recently appointed House Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, one of the toughest, most consuming jobs in the legislature.

What legislators are likely to do, with less high-profile legislation, is continue the erosion of the Superintendent’s authority. A bill is being drafted that would have data for the accountability program developed by the state’s information technologies department and delivered to the Board of Education, without a stop at the Department of Education. That’s partly because when the legislators tried to appropriate $250,000 to the Board last year to provide them some support staff and a new Professional Judgment Panel (more about that later), they felt the dollars got held up for a period of time in the Department of Education.

Is the Board of Education ready for a major role in determining how we evaluate education? Not if you measure it by staff. Compared to the sizable bureaucracy at Cindy Hill’s Department of Education, the unpaid board has a staff of … one. Or maybe two, if you consider Paige Fenton Hughes, a former Wyoming school superintendent, who serves as “coordinator.”

“Our work has to be on the policy side,” says Hughes. “We don’t have administrative mechanism at our disposal.”

With the $250,000 that almost got lost in the Department of Education last year, the board is paying Hughes, and assembling a Professional Judgment Panel, to evaluate the proposals being developed for the legislature by consultant Scott Marion. (Marion, incidentally, worked for the Wyoming Department of Education more than a decade ago, first for Superintendent Judy Catchpole, and briefly for her successor, Trent Blankenship. Blankenship, under fire from legislators and Gov. Dave Freudenthal, quit the job in 2005 and fled to Alaska.)

*     *     *     *

For a state where limited government, local control and libertarian principles are popular notions, Wyoming’s public education system is surprisingly top-down; funding, scholastic achievement standards, and school design all are largely helmed in Cheyenne, not local school districts. Combine that with all the strings tied to federal education funding, and local administrators and school boards might sensibly wonder if they’ve been transported to some top-down, socialist experiment in education.

It wasn’t entirely the choice of Wyoming legislators to concentrate so much power over education in Cheyenne. The driving force has been the Wyoming Supreme Court, which back in 1980 (Washakie County Sch. Dist. No. One v. Herschler) declared “until equality of financing is achieved, there is no practicable method of achieving equality of quality.”

Rock River

Wyoming’s poorest towns, like Rock River, were unable to maintain school districts of quality equal to those of wealthier areas. Lawsuits brought before Wyoming’s Supreme Court in past decades have forced state legislators to find ways to redistribute tax revenue to close the achievement gaps between districts. (Jimmy Emerson/Flickr — click to enlarge)

The old way – local property taxes and bond issues mostly paying for local school buildings and education – fell far short of that education equality goal, considering the huge gulf in property tax revenues between, say, coal-rich Gillette and little revenue-poor Rock River. Wyoming, its Supreme Court ruled, needed to throw out the old system and create a new one that collected property taxes for education from around the state and redistributed them so all Wyoming kids got an equal chance, whether it was metal shop skills or a chance at Harvard.

Activist judges are not a hallmark of Wyoming jurisprudence either, but the state Supreme Court, once it got is feet wet, has been diving into the classroom with relish for more than 25 years. The legislature’s half-hearted attempts to redistribute education funds more equably in the 1980s led to another series of landmark lawsuits beginning in 1992 (Campbell County, et al v. State of Wyoming), and known by the shorthand of Campbell I, II, III, and IV (the last in 2008). The courts’ rulings more and more required that state lawmakers and administrators take charge.

Legislators from those early years, and even today, will say they have been forced against their will to take over the traditionally local business of education policy. But many of them now talk with pride of the legislature’s role in building a first-class public education system. And they seem to be relishing a larger and larger role for Cheyenne in everything from the seating capacity of high school basketball arenas to the questions kids have to answer on achievement tests.

Again, an anonymous school administrator, no friend of the Hill administration, is equally dubious about the legislature, citing its part-time status and many other concerns: “They’re way too far into the weeds. The legislature is not the body to do what it’s been doing.”

Coe says the legislature – which is constitutionally limited to 60 session days every two years – can nevertheless, albeit reluctantly, handle the load. “I think people have a tendency to overlook all the work we do in the interim,” he notes. (Joint legislative committees meet several times during the year to consider issues and draft legislation.) But after praising the House Education Committee Chairman Matt Teeters (R-Lingle), he expresses some concern,. “In the House, they have 14 new members, and 34 members with two years or less experience. I’m concerned about their immaturity – they’re all good people, but understanding what’s been going on over the years takes more institutional memory.”

*     *     *     *

The legislative action on accountability will be small scale in 2013, fine tuning the system to remove any ambiguity about the lawmakers’ intent, but the rancor between Superintendent Hill and her overseers in the Capitol is likely to be large. Remember, too, that this is only Phase I; next comes the complicated task of measuring all the factors that contribute to student achievement, such as growth, equity, and capacity, in order to improve the system.

Other education issues that have generated considerable controversy in recent years are not expected to flare in 2013.

Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), chairman of the Senate Education Committee

Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The Hathaway scholarships, a product of the decade-long boom, provide financial support to Wyoming students attending the University of Wyoming and community colleges. The Hathaway endowment is in good fiscal shape, despite the recent slump in state revenues. In September, the endowment stood at $530 million. The endowment is fed by mineral revenues and “backfill” from funds that were designated for other things, but not entirely used up.

In the past, legislators fought over how stringent qualifications for the Hathaway should be. But taxpayers, and parents of college students, seem generally pleased with the “Success Curriculum” which requires four years of core subjects English, math, social studies and science. Coe expects no Hathaway controversy this year, though there might be some discussion of increasing the scholarship levels to adjust for increasing education costs.

Simplicity is not the hallmark of education issues, but Rothfuss is drafting a seemingly straightforward bill to address the disappointing graduation rate in Wyoming high schools. Noting the contradiction in faulting schools for a high dropout rate while allowing kids to leave school at age 16, the legislation would raise the age when you can drop out of school to 18.

Building schools has had its own niche apart from the school foundation program in the budget, but school capital construction is driven also by the courts’ efforts to give every Wyoming student equal opportunities. During the years of budget surpluses, the state has invested over $1.4 billion in upgrading or building new schools. Much of that money comes from coal lease bonus payments, money collected when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management leases federally-owned minerals within Wyoming, and gives the state a share of the payment. Despite the threat of carbon constraints to continued coal production, recent lease sales suggest this revenue stream will continue. But Gov. Matt Mead suggested in a recent press conference that the list of school construction projects “needs to get a lot shorter,” musing that coal lease bonus money could be used for other priorities. (Usually, in Wyoming, that means highways.)

Still, the problem with school construction isn’t going to be lack of funds. Currently, the problem is more a backlog of funds that haven’t been spent. Legislators are impatient with the slow pace of contracting for approved school projects – over $400 million sits waiting. Harshman blames a cumbersome approval process through the Wyoming School Facilities Commission. “You don’t need a 50-page contract, developed by out-of-state consultants, to build a fence,” he says. There may be some legislative tweaking to better incorporate growth projects in new school construction, and possibly efforts to turn over more of the construction process to school districts.

*     *     *     *

A legislature that has been so active in the education field is bound to find new ways to involve itself. In 2013, there is a lot of urgency, if not a lot of legislation, because the demands of federal and state law are creating pressure on an agency that appears to be struggling. Deadlines are upcoming for seeking waivers from tough federal requirements, but attention will focus on the continuing struggle over who will manage the development of a complex system that will evaluate our schools, our teachers and our students, and give Wyoming the tools it needs to improve the education edifice it’s invested in so heavily.

Will it be the legislature, with its limited schedule, its limited staff, and its many other distractions?

Will it be the Wyoming Board of Education, heretofore an unstaffed panel of citizens who surely never envisioned themselves overseeing an accountability process that – and this is only one sentence out of hundreds of pages of documents generated so far – requires an understanding of how to combine multiple indicators that include “compensatory, conjunctive, disjunctive and profile methods”?

the newly constructed Big Horn Middle School/High School, which opened in Autumn 2011.

The newly constructed Big Horn Middle School/High School, which opened in Autumn 2011. As Wyoming’s education system continues it’s development, empowered by state funding, the question of who will oversee it’s progress goes unanswered. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Or will it be Cindy Hill and her beleaguered Department of Education?

In late October, she took her team of experts to Newcastle, as she has to several other Wyoming communities, to show off the pilot accountability model that they’ve developed – the one that the legislature seems entirely uninterested in. The audience included school officials, school board members, and a confused journalist or two.

There was a video of Dr. Michael Fullan, a Canadian sociologist who criticizes “using accountability as a stick,” and there was some discouraging-sounding statistics about Wyoming school performances (18.9 percent of Wyoming schools were not meeting expectations; 30.9 percent were only partially meeting expectations), followed by reassurances that “this is just a pilot, don’t go home thinking we’ve got 40,000 kids in schools that are failing.”

Hill, who had left most of the presentation to aides, told attendees, “It’s really kind of cutting edge.”

The audience was attentive, if not enthusiastic. One district educator said, “I want to make sure we don’t get bogged down in the formula, and it doesn’t work.” A school official in a different district said to me later he was unsure whether Hill’s effort to pitch her evolving plan around the state “is serious, or is it diversionary.”

For administrators, the question of who is really in charge is important because of the enormous work involved in implementing whichever formula comes out on top. If the legislature is going to ignore Hill’s work, and direct its consultants to create their own plan, school districts will have to prepare for that instead. And if the Department of Education is reduced to being simply a compliance agency for the legislature’s plan, can they be expected to do that job diligently, or will the legislature and Board of Education operate their own “shadow” agency?

“We want them all working in harmony,” Hill insists.

“Our spending on students is the 2nd or 3rd highest in the country (per capita),” says Coe. “We should be right up there with Massachusetts.”

But for now, as government branches battle over who should guide public schools, we’re not.

— Geoffrey O’Gara is a longtime Wyoming journalist. He was a Wyoming Public Television producer and host of the influential Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs. He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West (2002) and A Long Road Home, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (1989) and several other books. O’Gara served on the Fremont County District One school board for eight years. An avid cyclist, basketballer and fly fisherman, he lives in Lander.

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