Friday, March 11, 2011

It is time to ask, “Why does the state fund a Department of Education?”

In addition to the $1.5 billion Wyoming spends on schools and the millions spent on school facilities, you and I also pay millions for this bureaucracy. Why?

It is not much different from the Brits paying for the tradition of having royalty.
They may have a monarchy and actions of the government are carried out “in The Queen's name” but decisions about real policy are made by members of Parliament. For show, the powers of the monarchy are vast; however, in practice the Queen is simply a costly way to hold an illusion.
In much the same way, we hold the illusion that the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) fulfills a significant role in our schools. The existence of the Superintendent of Public Education is enshrined in the state Constitution as it was adopted in the 1800’s. The founders deemed, “The general supervision of the public schools shall be entrusted to the state superintendent of public instruction” but then added language that has been used to neuter this elected official ever since, i.e. “whose powers and duties shall be prescribed by law.”
Another provision of our Constitution guarantees, “The right of the citizens to opportunities for education should have practical recognition.” It is hard to know what that means but it ought to include making sure children are safe from bullying when they go to school. Yet the Wyoming Department of Education is so toothless, it cannot even provide that assurance.
This week, the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reported WDE has contracted to hold 20 local town hall meetings on the problem of bullying and violence in the schools. But only five have been held and the other school districts have said, “Thanks but no thanks.” One suggested these sessions are a part of the “gay and lesbian agenda.” Whatever their reason, what we enshrine as “local control” allows the schools to thumb their nose at a helpless Department of Education
Is that a problem? Absolutely. These school boards have the data. They know what many parents may not, i.e. students are unsafe at school. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) is conducted by state and local education and health agencies. All public school students grades 6 through 12 are included.
The YRBS tells nearly a third of Wyoming students reported being in a fight at school, a higher than the national median number have been threatened with a weapon while on school property and Wyoming students report at a rate far above the national range they have been victims of bullying at school.
But the Wyoming Department of Education can do nothing to change this paradigm? A WDE spokesman told the Tribune-Eagle the Department “respects” the decisions made by local school districts. So then, who is left to “respect” the desire of children to be safe? Parents who are worried about their children’s’ safety and legislators who appropriate millions of dollars to WDE should ask why local control, even when exercised irresponsibly, should trump responsibility. They should also wonder why taxpayers fund a state agency as useless as the Wyoming Department of Education?
I followed this year’s debate about teacher accountability. Unfortunately not one bill was introduced to make either the Department, local school boards or administrators accountable. Bullying teachers is much more politically acceptable, as apparently allowing our children to be bullied is as well.

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