Maybe this new-found optimism I’m feeling about education in Wyoming is just a Thanksgiving leftover, and the notion we should be grateful for the qualified professionals guiding the public schools we have. But I think it’s mostly because I’ve just read the new, impressive report to the Legislature on education governance.
It’s a state study that actually lives up to its title: “Laying the Foundation for a Strong Future.” Completed by Cross & Joftus (C&J), a Bethesda-based educational strategic planning consultant, it analyzes options to significantly change a system that is not working well.
Oddly, we have the ordeal Wyoming suffered as a result of Republican Cindy Hill’s inept term as superintendent of public instruction — and GOP state lawmakers’ disturbing, futile effort to dump her — to thank for this new opportunity to fix our educational system. It’s finally put most of us on the same page about where we need to go from here to take politics out of the educational equation as much as possible.
There’s a growing consensus the state doesn’t need to elect a superintendent of public instruction anymore. Meanwhile, the C&J report clearly outlines the history of the position so no one can claim there’s some inherent value the state’s founders placed on an elected superintendent to guide our educational endeavors. The state constitution approved in 1890 vaguely said the official is in charge of “general supervision of the public schools,” but left it to the Legislature to define the duties and responsibilities of the office.
Lawmakers didn’t get around to that task until 1917, when they created a State Board of Education to head the new Wyoming Department of Education. Two years later, the Legislature put the department under the superintendent’s control, but it didn’t stay that way. C&J noted Wyoming has had at least six different education governance structures in the past century, including an education commissioner who was chosen by the board.
One consistency has been the state board’s authority to set educational policies and standards. But there has been inherent tension between the superintendent and the board, because of two fundamental flaws. First, voters have the misconception the person they elect as superintendent is responsible for policies and standards. Second, there is no mechanism in place to decide how disputes between the board and superintendent are settled.
The new study concluded, “At the state level, Wyoming’s education system has been held back repeatedly by disagreement, tension and dysfunction.” Given this backdrop, and the propensity of legislators to enter the fray and jam up the works further (i.e., the Hill fiasco), it’s amazing our public school system didn’t crash before this.
But a willingness to change the system appears at hand. The study indicates many people in Wyoming are willing to consider following the national trend to appoint education superintendents. In the late 1940s, 33 states elected a public schools chief, but Wyoming is only one of a dozen that continues to do so.
C&J interviewed numerous stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, higher-education leaders and parent advocacy groups. It also received about 1,500 responses to its public survey, and both groups favored an appointed superintendent.
So did the Wyoming Board of Education, with only one dissenting vote. But the majority split 4-4 over whether the governor or the board should appoint the superintendent. That’s a debate that won’t be easily settled.
In fact, there is a long way to go before the governance structure of our educational system can be changed, and the path has many places to stumble. First, two-thirds of both the House and Senate must pass a constitutional amendment to make the superintendent an appointed position. If that’s successful, a simple majority of voters in the next general election must also approve the amendment.
Meanwhile, the details about how the change would work need to be hammered out. Will people be worried about concentrating too much power over education in the hands of the governor if he/she appoints the superintendent and continues to select members of the state board? Should all board members, or at least some of them, be elected by the people to represent certain districts? Should the Legislature have to confirm the superintendent and/or board members?
Another hurdle to changing Wyoming’s system will be how to account for the superintendent’s role in serving on the State Land Board and the State Loan and Investment Board. With five elected state officials, the chairman of the boards — the governor — can easily break a tie vote. With four voting members, it would seriously complicate that scenario.
The C&J report also offers hard evidence that on the issue of whether Wyoming should elect or appoint a superintendent, one tool to evaluate the choice historically is to look at the candidates who seek the office.
Of the last 21 people who ran for superintendent during the past five election cycles, only three had experience leading a school district. None had led a medium-to-large district or one recognized for making notable improvements in student learning.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been good candidates for the office. But it shows when Wyoming goes looking for its next schools chief, there are many advantages in starting with a pool of applicants who have proven they definitely have the chops for the job.
C&J did an outstanding job of showing why Wyoming students’ poor performance on standard academic tests compared to other states dictates that changes be considered. It also offered much evidence to confirm what many officials have complained about: While Wyoming is spending a ton of money on public schools, the system is not providing us with anything close to the type of qualified workforce the state will need to compete in the national and global markets.
If you can, I’d recommend reading the entire 64-page C&J report to gain some valuable insight about the shortcomings of Wyoming’s current structure for governing our education system.
Several issues in the study stood out for me that show why Wyoming simply cannot continue following the status quo, because we’re falling too far behind what our own expectations should be and what the rest of the world is doing. Here are two:
° “The consequences of the preparedness gap for Wyoming’s youth are sobering. For every 100 Wyoming 9th graders, at least 85 of them report the goal of attending college, but only 80 of them will graduate from high school. Just 44 of the original 100 9th graders will enter post-secondary institutions, and 22 of them will require remedial coursework. Even after allowing extra time to complete coursework … only 16 of those original 100 9th graders will earn a diploma or certification.” That’s not only sobering, it’s a pathetic record of failure.
° “On international assessments, the U.S. was once a top performer. Despite the fact that the performance of U.S. students continues to improve, we have been losing ground to other countries in which educational performance is improving at a faster rate, including the Slovak Republic, Vietnam, Poland and Korea. As of 2009, Wyoming 15-year-olds are out-performed by their peers in Belgium and Estonia and are now equal to those in Slovenia. It is unlikely that these are the nations with which Wyoming wishes to be compared.”
It’s worth noting in two of the models proposed in the report, the state’s governor would play a drastically different role in the future of education. In one, the public elects the state board members, and the board appoints a superintendent, leaving the state’s chief executive with no authority over public education.
But in another, the governor wields significant power by appointing both the State Board of Education members and the chief state school officer. C&J explained the power of the governor’s office can be helpful in moving a state’s education agenda through the legislative process. It can obviously be beneficial when the top school officer and the governor share a vision of education’s future. The consultant also pointed out if stability of leadership is a priority for a state, “this governance structure may not be the best option.”
If the governor ends up selecting a superintendent and appointing all board members, it would behoove voters to pay better attention to the gubernatorial candidates’ education policies. It would be more important than ever to find out whether the next state chief executive believes in climate change, evolution and other scientific facts that must be taught in our public schools.