Wyoming Officials Feud Over Who Calls Shots on K-12
Law empowering governor draws political pushback, lawsuit from state schools chief
When Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed legislation last month that rendered elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill mostly powerless, she did more than file a lawsuit to fight back: She announced the next day that she would run for Mr. Mead's job in 2014.
The decision to effectively end Ms. Hill's power over the state's public schools illustrates the perils and complications, both political and practical, of a plan legislators initially approved two years ago to overhaul Wyoming's education system.
The move has also shaken up the state's political environment, as Mr. Mead joins the ranks of governors who, in recent years, have moved to consolidate their authority and influence over education policy in various ways.
Some, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, have reshaped their state budgets and fiscal priorities through K-12 budget changes. Others, like Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Gov. Rick Snyder in Michigan (both Republicans), have pushed for big changes in the way education is delivered and how students learn.
Further back, then-Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, persuaded voters in 2003 to change the state constitution to make the education department part of the governor's cabinet and allow the governor to appoint the department head.
The Wyoming case is also embroiled in state politics—and has raised concerns over whether lawmakers overstepped their bounds.
"She has at least a credible claim that the legislature has made an [improper] constitutional step," said Arnold Shober, an assistant professor of government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., who has written about gubernatorial control of schools.
The clash is not primarily a partisan one, since both Ms. Hill and Mr. Mead are Republicans. Rather, Ms. Hill's tenure at the state department came to be characterized by a feud over a scathing report issued by the state legislature's Legislative Service Office concerning the progress Ms. Hill and her department had made in implementing the state's Accountability in Education Act.
The 2011 law included the phase-in over several years of new assessments, new rankings for schools, and new teacher and principal evaluations based in part on student test scores.
The state report released in November criticized Ms. Hill's department as moving too slowly on or unnecessarily delaying critical work while prioritizing optional work. (The report used the phrase "unnecessary delay" 18 times.) It also faulted the department for failing to provide data to the state board of education, and for staffing problems.
"Clearly there were mistakes made," said Ron Micheli, the vice chairman of the state board.
But Ms. Hill fought back, arguing in her official response that her department missed no deadlines in developing a new accountability model, for example. She also denied a claim that the department did not understand its own growth model.
"The [department] has accomplished all of the tasks assigned by the state legislature," she wrote.
A Quick Fall
Ms. Hill's fall from power was unusually swift, and was triggered by Senate File 104.
The bill replaced the elected superintendent as the chief of the education department with a department director, appointed by the governor. It was introduced Jan. 10, and was signed into law less than three weeks later. It was sponsored by state Sen. Hank Coe, the Republican who chairs the Senate education committee. (Mr. Coe did not respond to a request for comment.)
Upon signing the legislation, Gov. Mead appointed Jim Rose, the executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission, as the interim director of the department. The state board of education will conduct a national search for a permanent director and submit three finalists to the governor for his consideration.
"We have lots of work to do, and we don't have time to defer it until we feel comfortable," said Mr. Rose, who also referred to the recent "decimation" in the department's ranks.
Ms. Hill, meanwhile, will retain her seat on the State Board of Land Commissioners and other such groups. She will also keep her $92,000 annual salary.
Ms. Hill hasn't completely lost her say in public schools. Earlier this month, she proposed to the state legislature to organize five teacher-training conferences throughout the state, and in fact asked for a budget increase for the state superintendent's office after the legislation passed.
Nevertheless, she sued the state to have the legislation overturned, claiming it was unconstitutional. (The Wyoming Constitution says the state superintendent must be publicly elected, although that technically is not the title Mr. Rose holds.)
With the new law, both the director and state board members are appointed by the governor. In an interview, Ms. Hill stressed the importance of local control as a check on the centralization of power over public schools.
"The people elected their superintendent, and the work that I was doing and am doing is in response to what the people of Wyoming believe to be most important for an educational agency," she said.
Renny MacKay, Mr. Mead's spokesman, said the speed with which the bill passed did not indicate it wasn't thoroughly discussed. Asked why he thought the legislation couldn't wait until the end of Ms. Hill's term in 2014, he responded: "Do you say to a parent, 'Well, we'll deal with this in two years when your child has graduated?' "
Politics Getting Personal
The political history between Ms. Hill and Sen. Coe has been rocky.
During the 2010 election for state superintendent in the heavily Republican state, Mr. Coe endorsed Ms. Hill's Democratic opponent, state Sen. Mike Massie, who serves on the education committee chaired by Mr. Coe.
Ms. Hill countered with support from U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and support from tea-party groups in the state.
Then last year, Mr. Coe said that Ms. Hill, in turn, endorsed his write-in opponent in the Nov. 6 election.
Joe Gulino, a member of Tea Party Roundup in the state, argued that Ms. Hill suffered for questioning Wyoming's involvement in initiatives like the Common Core State Standards and the federal money that came with them.
"She bucked the system, and the good old boys got their nose bent out of shape," Mr. Gulino said.
Scott Marion, the associate director of the Dover, N.H.-based Center for Assessment, and a consultant on accountability to Wyoming, said issues with implementing the school accountability system slowed work on the educator evaluation system by approximately a year. However, he said he supported an extended timeline in Wyoming because, in his opinion, many states are moving too quickly to fully implement teacher evaluation systems.
Mr. Micheli, of the state school board, lamented that the struggle ultimately boiled down to personalities, not policy.
But he said legislators were also to blame for being too aggressive initially in their timelines for completing the new accountability system.
In fact, one bill now in the legislature would push back the production of school performance ratings to 2013-14, and another would delay the full implementation of teacher evaluations to 2016-17. Both have passed the House and were approved by the Senate education committee last week.
"It's just been an awkward and a difficult situation," Mr. Micheli said.
Vol. 32, Issue 21, Page 24
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