Wyoming lawmakers want better schools, teacher raises

Nikki Poelma of Albin Elementary School teaches reading to her kindergarten teachers last year in Albin. Lawmakers are proposing a 2.09 salary increase for teachers in conjunction with other school reform efforts. (Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

District teacher of the year Nikki Poelma of Albin Elementary School teaches reading to her kindergarten students last year in Albin. Lawmakers are proposing a 2.09 percent salary increase for teachers in conjunction with other education bills. (Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

By Gregory Nickerson
—January 14, 2014

In the upcoming budget session, Wyoming lawmakers will step back from major education reforms, focusing instead on a number of tweaks to policy and a pay raise for Wyoming teachers. That doesn’t mean that debate about education reform has gone silent in Wyoming politics.

The central issues in Wyoming education come out of the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act (WAEA), a school reform bill that lawmakers passed in 2010. In simplified terms, the law aims to collect data on student performance, then require action from teachers and administrators in need of improvement.

Wyoming's Joint Education Committee (shown here) and the Select Committee on Education Accountability are the two bodies that set school policy. Neither is planning major changes in direction on school reform for the 2014 budget session. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Wyoming’s Joint Education Committee (shown here) and the Select Committee on Education Accountability are the two bodies that set state school policy. Neither is planning major changes on school reform for the 2014 budget session. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

The school reform law is popular among legislative leadership, who see it as a vital effort that falls directly within the legislature’s responsibilities. However, opponents criticize the reform law for adding to student testing burdens and increasing bureaucracy while using standards and tests developed outside of Wyoming.

In particular, critics have focused on the state’s 2010 adoption of the Common Core Standards and membership in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium as non-local efforts that will advance federal policy at the expense of local control. The Department of Education has released memos addressing concerns about the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced test.
While opposition to the Common Core and school reform is alive and well among certain members of the public, it won’t play a major role in this year’s bills. “Our intent in this session is to stabilize the education accountability system and not make any major changes,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). “There was not a great deal of contention among (lawmakers on the education committees). … Basically we are continuing on the path that we set out on a few years ago.”
Amy Edmonds, a former legislator who is now works for the Wyoming Liberty Group think tank, sees the legislature’s reform effort as a “massive boondoggle” that overlooks the role of parents in school improvement. In her view, the 11 education bills proposed for this session don’t redirect the school system toward more local control, which she believes will produce better results.“Each of these is just tweaking another issue inside of education,” Edmonds said. “It’s a little like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
On the other side of the coin are lawmakers who believe their school reform effort can help raise the quality of education across the state while paying heed to calls for local control.“We do have local control in the districts and we have made that a high priority. But as long as you are using state resources you have to be held accountable,” said Rep. Rosie Berger (R-Big Horn). “As legislators we are responsible to the state of Wyoming for overseeing money going to schools. There is a tension and it should be a healthy tension.”

The call for reform

Wyoming has made significant changes to its education system since the mid-1990s. Starting in 1995, a series of state Supreme Court decisions known as Campbell I, II, III, and IV required the legislature to establish equity in school funding and facilities across the state. That led lawmakers to redesign the way Wyoming funds schools and to create the School Facilities Commission to oversee campus construction statewide.

Since 2010, the school reform effort has gone a step further in an effort to require equal quality of education.  The driving force behind the recent reforms is the fact that Wyoming invests more per student than almost any other state, but does not achieve student performance any greater than other states. A 2012 Harvard Study ranked Wyoming in the middle of the pack for growth in test scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (See this Casper Star-Tribune article for more.)

Wyoming showed gains math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 4th and 8th grades between 2009-2013. (Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

Wyoming showed gains math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 4th and 8th grades between 2009-2013. Lawmakers want to see state school performance commensurate with top-ranking funding.(Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

“Our objective is to be at or near the top,” Rothfuss said. “We pay sufficient money to be up there and we’d like to see an appropriate position in terms of our national ranking on various standardized tests in accordance with those expenditures.”

During Wyoming’s recent natural gas boom, the Wyoming legislature began increasing the amount it spends per student from $8,000 to more than $17,000 today. That put Wyoming’s spending per student on par with the state of New York, at the top of the fifty states. Lawmakers hoped to see Wyoming’s rankings on national standardized tests improve with the increased spending, but that didn’t happen.

“Why, if we have the most expensive K-12 system in the planet, aren’t we seeing a change in results?” said Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau, (R-Gillette). He believes lawmakers have a duty to make sure money, and minds, aren’t going to waste.

“We’ve got to prepare students to live and survive in a high paced world economy where they are going to have to reinvent themselves three or four times over their lifetime,” Lubnau said. “We have an obligation to students to make sure they are prepared to do that.”

To that end, Rothfuss says Wyoming has focused on two key reforms. “We are hiring excellent teachers and paying them well enough to retain our best teachers. We are going to put in place a system of support to recognize deficiencies (in schools) and improve them,” he said.

While the legislature requires improvement, Rothfuss said the statutes leave school districts control and flexibility over how to carry out specific improvements. “We are not asserting state authority too deeply, he said.  “We are asserting more control, but I think its unreasonable to say we are taking control.”

Rothfuss said he expects the reforms to work, but cautioned that there are no overnight solutions in a process as large as education.

Opposing the legislative approach to K-12 reform

The chief opponent of the legislature’s reform effort is Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill (R), whose efforts to oppose school reform were partly responsible for the legislature removing her as head of the Department of Education in the 2013 session.

Cindy Hill

Cindy Hill, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Following the session, lawmakers launched an investigation to look into allegations that Hill took illegal actions at the Department of Education and disregarded duties assigned to her office by law. Last week, Hill faced off with the legislative committee investigating her management of the Department.

The report of the Hill investigation will come out just as lawmakers enter this year’s budget session on February 10th. It will help lawmakers assess whether to pursue further legal action or impeachment proceedings before Hill’s term expires in January 2015.

Update: House leadership has postponed work on the investigation until after the end of the 2014 session.

Meanwhile, Hill and her staff have kept busy by pursuing a lawsuit against Gov. Matt Mead for the passage of Senate File 104, the bill that changed the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. This past October, Hill released her own report on Wyoming’s school system that sharply criticized the legislature’s approach to school improvement.

Update: On January 28th the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hill in the lawsuit.  Read more here.

“Students learn and grow as a result of quality instructional time with their teacher and with parental support,” Hill’s report read. “Any policy that promotes these ends is beneficial; any policy that distracts from this fundamental purpose of education is non-productive. This must be the test for every policy and every action.”

Hill asserted that federal money had led Wyoming’s Department of Education off course:

“From a common sense perspective, we know that Congress does not teach a child to read, to write, to perform mathematical functions, or to critically think. Nor can the Wyoming legislature perform or manage these functions. Only professionalism by teachers and instructional leadership achieve these ends. Yet, over the past several decades, the federal government has sought to assume greater control of education in the states, reaching into the classrooms, and Wyoming has been lured in this direction through reliance on federal money.”

Hill’s criticism of federal involvement in school reform is shared by organizations like the Wyoming Liberty Group. Amy Edmonds explained that the group favors a marketplace approach to improving schools. She argues that parents can enforce accountability on districts by taking their children out of schools that are underperforming.

In December, another group called Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core delivered a letter to Gov. Mead asking him to stop Wyoming’s participation in the Common Core Standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

Some Wyoming districts will run a pilot of the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium in 2014. The state has not decided whether to use the test statewide starting in 2015. (SBAC — click to enlarge)

Some Wyoming districts will run a pilot of the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium in 2014. The state has not yet decided whether to use the test statewide starting in 2015. (SBAC — click to enlarge)

“The Common Core is not the instrument to raise student achievement in Wyoming. Its centrally controlled standards lack both field testing and international benchmarking,” the letter read. “Establishing national standards and enforcing them with a high-stakes, federally funded test will pressure Wyoming to implement curriculum designed to be used nationally. This will further remove local input and control.”

While the letter made clear the group’s opposition with the Common Core standards and the SBAC, it affirmed the utility of high standards and national tests to compare results across state lines. Mead is drafting a response to the letter.

Update: Mead’s response can be read at the bottom of this article.

While Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core noted the usefulness of standardized tests, some observers point out that some of the best schools in the world are in Finland, a country that doesn’t heavily test students and pays high teacher salaries to attract the smartest people to the profession. For an in-depth look at Finland schools, see this BBC America report.

Salary Raises

From the point of view of school districts across the state, the most significant proposal for the upcoming session is a 2.09 percent cost of living increase for K-12 teachers that will cost about $25 million. This proposed increase is part of a $1.6 billion overall package to fund K-12 schools through 2015-2016. That makes education one of the largest items in the state’s budget outside of General Fund spending. The full K-12 budget proposal is available here.

Last October, the Joint Appropriations Committee recommended the pay increase to Gov. Mead, who supported it in his budget message released at the end of November. The proposal will become part of the budget bill that lawmakers will debate once the session opens.

Desert School teacher Margaret Rattenbury teaches students in her classroom music through the use of Apple's Garage Band music program last year in Wamsutter. Teachers would get about $1,000 additional pay if the legislature approves the raise. Average teacher pay is over $59,000 for teachers in Wyoming.  (Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

Desert School teacher Margaret Rattenbury teaches students in her classroom music through the use of Apple’s Garage Band music program last year in Wamsutter. Teachers would get about $1,000 additional pay if the legislature approves the raise. Wyoming has started to lose its edge at offering higher teacher pay than other states. (Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

The 2.09 percent pay increase is only for the 2015 fiscal year, but that raise would become part of the standard budget in 2016. Lawmakers may look at an additional cost of living increase for 2016 during this session, but that discussion has not yet happened. Rothfuss says that he would like a placeholder for raises in the 2016 budget.

In Gov. Mead’s budget statement he noted that districts have had flexibility within their budgets to offer raises and step increases since 2008. For some districts granting raises to teachers has meant digging into reserves. Even so, Rothfuss said districts haven’t been able to keep up with inflation.

“What we’ve seen is over the last four years (the legislature hasn’t) given the cost of living adjustment, so we’ve eroded the purchasing power of the block grant teacher salary component by about 10 percent,” Rothfuss said. “We are getting to the point that we are not out ahead where we used to be on teacher salaries, and we are beginning to feel the pressure.”

In 2012, the School Foundation Program Block Grant calculated the average teacher salary in Wyoming at $50,662. The 2.09 percent raise would amount to about $1,059 in additional pay for teachers.

In reality, the Department of Workforce services calculated a higher average salary for Wyoming teachers at about $59,000. Matt Wilmarth of the Legislative Service Office explained the discrepancy comes from regional cost-of-living adjustments for places like Teton County, and higher state funding for districts where teachers have more experience. Further, the state funding model calculates spending for about 806 positions that aren’t filled by districts. Districts have the discretion to use the unspent salary money in their Block Grant to pay teachers more.

Education Bills in the 2014 session

The education bills for the 2014 legislative session come out of two legislative bodies: The Select Committee on Education Accountability, and the Joint Education Committee. During the interim these committees have discussed a variety of proposals, and have decided to introduce 11 bills for the wider legislature to debate.

Select Committee on Education Accountability Bills

The Select Committee on Education Accountability approved three bills for introduction: one to make some tweaks to the accountability program, another to ensure security of student data and a final bill to restrict the state Board of Education from committing schools to excessive federal oversight.

House Bill 28 – State education accountability and assessment: This year’s accountability bill makes minor changes to graduation requirements and requires schools to give job skills tests in 12th grade, rather than 11th grade. The most notable provision of the bill is that it will require high school students to take four years of math to graduate, rather than three, as had been the rule previously.

“The committee has felt strongly that we need to make sure students are taking four years, and we’ve seen evidence that it is a key to success after high school,” Rothfuss said. In the 2013 session, he introduced a single-issue bill aimed at increasing the math requirement, but it did not pass. “It seemed like a good time to make that change and recognize the importance of math,” he said.

Senate File 36 – Education-student data security: The Select Committee forwarded a data security bill that would require the Wyoming Department of Education director, together with Enterprise Technology Services, to create a plan for controlling access to student data. The plan would be aimed at keeping data secure, and creating procedures for notification of data breaches.

The bill was drafted because of concerns about student testing data from the Smarter Balanced Assessment being accessed by the federal government. The state is looking to run a pilot of the Smarter Balanced Assessment in some districts in 2014, before deciding whether to adopt the test statewide in 2015. Since the U.S. Department of Education funded the assessment, it will have access to the data. State Department of Education officials told lawmakers there will be no personal identifiers that can be traced to student’s names, and the state will retain right to restrict access to the data. Federal funding for the assessment will end later this year.

The bill would prohibit the sale of student data, plus require a plan on how long data will be retained and how it will be disposed of. The data collection will have to comply with federal education privacy laws.

Senate File 12 – State education program: Lastly, the Select Committee approved a bill that prohibits the state Board of Education from committing the state to excessive federal oversight, or making its state standards subject to federal approval.

Amy Edmonds of the Wyoming Liberty Group didn’t see a need for this bill. “The state board knows that, and there is nothing in their duties that would lead us to believe they have that authority,” she said. “It feels like a feel-good bill.”

Joint Education Committee bills

The Joint Education Committee is forwarding 8 bills for the session relating to school funding, student safety, teacher incentives, Hathaway scholarships, pre-kindergarten education and alternative schools.

House Bill 02 – Bonded indebtedness mill levy supplement: In the Department of Education’s budget request it recommended that the state end its Mill Levy Supplement program, which is for “taxpayers residing in school districts with relatively high debt service and relatively low assessed valuations per average daily membership (ADM).”

The program only applied to bonds issued before 2001 for a period of 10 years, and since there are no eligible bonds remaining, the department recommended elimination of the budget unit.

House Bill 03 – Alternative Schools: This bill eliminates a moratorium on funding alternative schools. It also allows alternative schools to be placed in the block grant for each district following a probationary period.

“The state has heard from its consultants in the past that it is not in the students’ best interest to carve them out and put them in an alternative school for the rest of their career,” Edmonds said. “It’s better to rehabilitate them and get them back into the schools. This just continues the problem. Students can now go back and get school facilities dollars, so I think you’ll see more alternative schools popping up.”

House Bill 05 – Education-required school bus video equipment-2: This bill would require school districts to install internal and external video cameras in all buses by 2015-2016 and apply to the state for reimbursement of costs.

Citizens recommended this measure at the Joint Education Committee’s June meeting as a way to prosecute illegal passing of stopped school buses and maintain a safe environment inside buses.

House Bill 026 – Education-early childhood programs: This bill would create a position with the Department of Education to coordinate early childhood education efforts across various state agencies. Read more about this measure in this WyoFile feature: Wyoming looks to revamp early childhood education.

Senate File 02 – Jason Flatt Act: This bill would require director of the Department of Education to approve materials suitable for suicide prevention education, and require teachers to undergo eight hours of suicide prevention education every four years. The bill is named after a 16-year old who committed suicide in 1997 and is promoted around the nation by the Jason Foundation.

Senate File 04 – School finance-local resources: Wyoming adjusts the amount of state funding it pays out to school districts by taking into account how much revenue can be brought in by local taxes. This bill excludes local district revenues from postsecondary education option programs from being included in the calculations for School Foundation Program funding.

Senate File 05 Teachers-national certification pay incentive: Part of Wyoming’s effort to improve instruction involves reimbursing districts that pay the costs for teachers to become Nationally Certified. This bill expands the reimbursement program to pay for counselors, librarians, certified tutors, and instructional facilitators who become certified.

Senate File 12 Hathaway scholarship program-enrollment expansion:This bill would expand the Hathaway scholarship program that provides high school graduates with reduced tuition at community colleges and the University of Wyoming.

A researcher’s perspective

Dr. Ian Mette is an assistant professor of educational administration in the College of Education at the University of Wyoming. His research focuses on school reform efforts. He recently arrived in Wyoming and has been keeping tabs on several advisory committees that are providing direction on accountability to the Joint Education Committee.

A pilot run of the school accountability program found some schools are not performing well. (Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

A pilot run of the school accountability program found 17 percent of Wyoming schools are not meeting expectations. The state will target improvement efforts at underperforming schools, while leaving details of implementation up to local districts. (Wyoming Department of Education — click to enlarge)

In Mette’s view, Wyoming’s reform efforts fall in line with a national trend over the past decade for state education departments to offer direct support and training to schools that aren’t performing well. “The school reform efforts we are seeing now really focus on social equity, trying to ensure all students receive a quality education,” he said.

Mette thinks Wyoming has taken a good approach by seeking input from a variety of stakeholders who have an interest in improving the school system. In particular, he noted the broad representation on the Professional Judgment Panel (PJP), the citizens group deciding the cut scores for low-performing schools that will receive additional state intervention and support. “From a researcher’s perspective, I think this process is very interesting in that the people of Wyoming are establishing these cut scores, not legislators or the state Department (of Education),” Mette said.

The PJP includes public school teachers, principals, superintendents, business and community members, parents, Wyoming Board of Education members, and Wyoming post-secondary institutions.

Oftentimes you can see things from the top down,” Mette said. “I think there are people in Wyoming that understand that this has to come from the citizens of Wyoming.”

As for the risk of the Common Core standards diminishing local control, Mette thinks the standards don’t tell teachers how to teach. He thinks the standards allow districts plenty of control over curriculum, instructional practices, and programs for professional development.

“I would say that Common Core State Standards are an attempt to help our nation have strong educational expectations for all children, and really to help them compete in a global economy,” Mette said.

Governor Mead’s Response to Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core


— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com. Follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY

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Published on January 14, 2014

  • Trout

    I haven’t had any fancy-pants law schoolin,’ but I suspect the Wyoming Supreme Court might take issue with the cagematch approach to education funding.

  • givemeabreak

    That’s right, throw even more money at education without any expectation of real improvement. How about we try something innovative, like taking away local control for approval of charters and letting true competition take place in education? Reward high-performing schools and staff with raises and funding, and make under-performing schools and staff compete for available funding? Not every teach deserves a raise, just like each of my employees performs differently and so no across-the-board raises are granted. It’s time for the education gravy train to end, and for us, as tax payers, (what a joke that term is in Wyoming!) to demand accountability and results.

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