My late father-in-law was Sid Werner, former head of what’s now called the Department of Administration and Information. He was also the assistant to two iconic Superintendents of Public Instruction, Velma Linford and Harry Roberts, and an astute observer of the legislature.
Sid once said, “A lot of people will tell you many things.” When it comes to education accountability in Wyoming, a lot of people are telling you many things.
At a caucus of the Democratic legislators, School Superintendent Cindy Hill gave a presentation on the state of education in Wyoming. She is articulate and passionate about her job. She cited districts that have achieved successes in student performance. Hill defended the work of her office and praised the work of local educators to demonstrate that what we hear from the legislature may not be the whole story.
But, the next morning a new report card on education in Wyoming surfaced, this time from StudentsFirst, an organization whose goal is to ensure that laws, leaders, and policies make students, not adults, their top priority. StudentsFirst’s leader is Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of Schools in Washington, DC, recognized by education reformers as someone to whom policymakers should listen.
Wyoming and ten other states including Montana, Nebraska, and both Dakotas received failing grades. Wyoming’s schools were criticized for failure to assure “effective teachers and principals are identified, retained and rewarded by districts.”
The report argued that Wyoming policymakers too often fail to use data to make decisions about education. The conclusion is hard to avoid when too many legislative leaders act like they are department heads rather than legislators and their decisions are driven more by politics than by facts, data or research.
This is not intended as criticism of the current Superintendent. Her GOP friends in the legislature have gleefully assumed that role. Cindy Hill is in a tough position. She’s the target of influential members of the legislature. Whether deserved or otherwise, I don’t know. But I do know from personal experience that once they decide to focus on you, the truth quickly becomes irrelevant.
When the Executioner tried to take the hat of the Mad Hatter before the beheading. The Hatter resisted. "I'd like to keep it on.” The executioner said, “Suit yourself, as long as I can get at your neck.” It’s like that.
The problem isn’t the Superintendent. It’s the schizophrenia of trying to find someone to blame when the Superintendent of Public Instruction is given all the responsibility and little of the authority. It’s what happens when a lot of people tell you many things. At the heart of the schizophrenia are legislators who say one thing at home and another on the floor of the legislature.
The term “schizophrenia” is used intentionally as opposed to words like hypocrisy. Legislators actually believe in mutually inconsistent ideas quite often. One of the symptoms of schizophrenia is the ability to hold false beliefs despite the presence of invalidating evidence. It’s important to note the symptom must prevail for at least one-month before making a valid diagnosis, which is why the legislature meets for 40 days.
At home they tell their neighbors who serve on school boards that they should have the authority to make education decisions without interference from Cheyenne. When in Cheyenne, they berate the Superintendent for not making sure the local folks are accountable. Ms. Hill should know this isn’t about her so much as it is a pattern for many legislators. It’s how they keep friends back home while creating a delusion of fulfilling their responsibility as legislators.
If the legislature is sincere about accountability it should change how State Superintendents of Public Education are chosen. If this job really matters, there must be a more important qualification than simply winning the most votes in a Republican primary. The legislature should allow the governor to choose a genuine education reformer, pay him or her what they are worth, and then get out of their way.
Wyoming Fast Facts