Public Schools and Accountability
It was the Wyoming courts – responding in the 1990s to lawsuits sparked by the uneven distribution of revenues to local school districts – that started a revolution in Wyoming education. The state courts shifted the power and the dollars to shape education from local districts to Cheyenne.
But once that revolution was underway, the legislature embraced it, and ambitiously undertook, particularly in the last decade, to remake a better, more ambitious public school system.
It’s been a huge investment, hundreds of millions of dollars in new schools, higher teacher salaries, training programs, and elaborate testing. Now parents and politicians are asking to see the results: Are Wyoming graduates today better equipped to meet the world’s challenges than they were a decade ago?
And that request – put simply: how are we doing? – has revealed damaging schisms at the top of the state’s public education system. The question in Cheyenne has become: Who’s in charge?
Early morning Tuesday last week, the Senate Education Committee held an unannounced meeting with members of the Board of Education – Chairman Joe Reichart, Scott Ratliff, and Ron Micheli – and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Cindy Hill. No lobbyists, no citizens, no press – well, one press, because I saw them scuttling into the committee room while on my way to a different meeting. I’m not sure Hill was invited either. She surely didn’t like what she heard.
Legislators are convinced that education is now their bailiwick, and they are telling the Superintendent – and the Board of Education – what to do. While Hill battles against an un-named “small group” that is out to undermine her– well, she named one of them this week, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), we’ll get to that later – she also appears to potentially be at odds with the State Board of Education.
“We want to be a real board,” said Scott Ratliff, a former legislator from Fremont County. “We want to work with Cindy and the department, but not FOR the department.”
Sen. Kit Jennings (R-Casper) commented, “You don’t know how good this sounds…At times I haven’t known who the board was.”
So the Senate Education Committee, apparently unsatisfied with Hill’s progress on creating evaluation instruments and other needed tools, is tasking the Board of Education – a fairly invisible group in recent years – with guiding new efforts to set achievement targets and hold school officials accountable for improving education. In the next few years, with new testing and new measurement techniques, accountability will trickle down to teachers, students, and even parents, if legislators have their way.
A rush to shake up the system last year caused heartburn, as teachers battled against legislator-proposed bills to eliminate tenure and institute merit pay. This year, the approach is calmer, but fairly detailed in a way that has to rankle the Department of Education: S. F. 57 would have the Board setting target levels, require improvement plans for schools, and set specific dates for when data on student achievement must be compiled and analyzed.
At the morning meeting, both the board and the Superintendent pushed back against deadlines next summer for a “pilot” collection and analysis of data. If August wouldn’t work, then what, asked legislators. “It might be September,” said Hill, then, “It could be October.”
Soon they were talking about November.
Rep. Harshman earned a sharp response from Hill after he introduced a bill that would have made the state Superintendent of Public Instruction a position appointed by the Governor, rather than a state-wide elected office. The bill failed to earn enough votes for introduction, but significant members of the House Education Committee cast some votes for it.
Clearly, there is a power struggle underway between the legislature and the Superintendent. It didn’t begin with Hill; two previous Superintendents also clashed with the solons. The Board of Education may be a third fighter in the ring.
In the meantime, people around the state, looking at the many new schools and the rising salaries of teachers and administrators, are wondering: How are we doing?