Education governance bill passes first House reading, Reps. use historical argumentsBy Gregory Nickerson January 23, 2013
Senate File 104 passed its first reading in the Wyoming House Wednesday. Thirty eight out of 60 representatives voted yes to the legislation that would transfer duties from the Superintendent of Public Instruction to an appointed director.
Debate lasted for almost two hours. Those against the bill took the position that it effectively eliminates the role of the superintendent, an office created by the Wyoming Constitution. Some felt that transferring duties in the middle of the superintendent’s term would invalidate the vote of the people and consolidate too much power in the governor, who would appoint the education director.
Several opponents called for a constitutional amendment on the issue. If successful, an amendment wouldn’t change the role of the superintendent until 2018, because it couldn’t go into effect before the next election for the office in 2014.
Others said they would be less opposed to passing Senate File 104 in its current form if it went into effect at the end of current Superintendent Cindy Hill’s term. That way the legislation wouldn’t abrogate the power wielded by citizens who voted for Hill in 2010.
Those in favor of the bill argued that the constitution gives the legislature complete power over the state school system, including the ability to assign or transfer duties away from the superintendent.
House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) said legislators have a constitutional mandate to manage the state’s education system and ensure their policies are followed.
Lubnau said lawmakers can provide a check to the superintendent’s power, or change the duties assigned to the office. He called opposition to SF 104 a “well-oiled political machine” and said, “We should not shirk from our duty (to manage education) in the face of political spin.”
Several legislators used historical arguments to make their case.
Rep. Keith Gingery (R-Jackson) spoke against the bill. He described himself as a constitutional originalist who looks to the intent of Wyoming’s founders for guidance. He quoted an argument used in Wyoming’s constitutional convention that the office of superintendent should supervise the state’s schools, rather than give that duty to the governor.
Gingery said lawmakers separated the powers to reduce corruption, a major concern of the time.
Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) also used a historical argument, but spoke in favor of the bill. She pointed out that the Department of Education is a legislatively created entity. There is nothing in the constitution granting the superintendent authority to manage that Department of Education, which didn’t exist in 1890, she said.
Throne also pointed to the precedent for an appointed administrator leading the state school system. In 1917, the state created the Department of Education and put the management of the schools in the charge of the state board of education, which was elected at that time. Then in 1919, the board of education appointed a commissioner of education to manage the department.
The legislature eliminated the commissioner of education position in 1959, Throne said.
Senate File 104 passed through first reading with 38 in favor, a significant advantage on the part of supporters. Bills must pass three readings in both houses before going to Gov. Mead’s desk.