Some Legislators say Superintendent reform is overdue

Jan 25, 2013

Jackson Republican Keith Gingery speaks against SF 104.
Jackson Republican Keith Gingery speaks against SF 104.
Credit Bob Beck

The Wyoming House of Representatives has joined the State Senate in passing a bill that would strip a number of powers from the State Superintendent and give them to a Governor appointed Director of Education.  The Superintendent would remain on state boards and commissions with the other four elected officials.  But the new Director would run the State Department of Education.  Top lawmakers crafted the legislation right before the legislative session; and many believe that the legislature is moving too quickly.  But some observers say the move is overdue.  Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports from Cheyenne…

BOB BECK:  Legislators who supported the bill say it came to this point because Superintendent Cindy Hill did not embrace a number of education reforms the legislature passed two years ago. 

Some of those reforms included new accountability measures that supporters hope will improve teaching and increase test scores.  They charge that Hill’s office missed deadlines; and turnover in her office kept the Department of Education from completing mandated tasks.  Senate Education Chairman Hank Coe says it was frustrating…

HANK COE no choice:  So this didn’t come lightly, this isn’t something we wanted to do, this is something we felt had no other option but to do, and that’s unfortunate.

BECK:  Coe says a big part of the problem is that over the last two years, employees were run off by Hill…

COE:  You know we’ve had a 40 percent turnover down there in the last year.  40 percent turnover.  And you can’t have that type of turnover and get the heavy lifting done that has to happen with education accountability.  All the good people down there that were there, that had an institutional knowledge of the Department of Education and how it worked aren’t there…refuse to work for her.

BECK:  For her part, Hill has referred to the legislative accountability measures as micromanaging and she says there is more to education then just doing administrative work.

CINDY HILL magic bullet:  We think that there’s some magic bullet here.  It’s not a magic bullet and we can’t go backwards.  We know what works, we see the results, the results are there Bob, they are there…look.  We know what we’ve been doing matters.

BECK:  Hill adds that it is clear her approach has worked…

HiLL test scores: The test scores are up statewide, you are hearing that they are not, and I say always ask the person their source.  Our state assessment has been up in every subject since I came in.

BECK:  But they are not up high enough for supporters of the legislation.  Wyoming consistently ranks among the top ten states in education spending and many say test scores and graduation rates should match that spending…but it hasn’t. Bill Schilling of the Wyoming Business Alliance is among those who have been critical about the state’s education standing.  Schilling’s group was instrumental in getting the Hathaway scholarship through the legislature, that allows students to get money to attend the University of Wyoming and the community colleges if they have met certain education criteria.  Schilling says it is time that the state hire an education director who not only can run the department, but who can also provide some consistent vision…

BILL SCHILLING:  And kids will aspire to greatness if they are given the nudge but we have to be at the same table together.  So I think it’s a great opportunity quite frankly. 

BECK:  Another person who thinks it’s time for a change might be surprise.  Trent Blankenship was the Superintendent for two years, when his own battles with legislators and the governor convinced him to resign the post.  Blankenship says having an appointed Director run the State Department of Education is likely wise. But Blankenship says the legislature is moving too quickly.  He thinks the issue should have been taken to the public…

TRENT BLANKENSHIP:  It would really be generative for the state to have a conversation about how do we govern the schools at the state level in a way that increases their effectiveness, that increases their representation of local communities and provides the state government a way to effectively administer the whole piece in the most cost effective manner possible.

BECK:  But Rae Lynn Job, who was a teacher, administrator, and State Senator says that conversation has occurred… and it was Blankenship who thwarted it.  Job reminds us that over a decade ago she was part of the  legislature that  approved its own massive school reform effort…that attempted to improve accountability, graduation rates and other issues

RAE LYNN JOB:  That was a great project and it was going along really well until we had an election and a new state Superintendent came in who didn’t like it.  Thwarted it totally by getting rid of the assessment people who were leading that effort.  So it languished for years and now it’s back again, where it could have been operating and changing teaching practices in the classroom all this time.

BECK:  Job says this shows there has always been a tension between the legislature’s efforts to improve education and the State Superintendent.  That’s why she supports the bill, saying that the appointed position has been needed for awhile.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.