— What would be the best way to use state money to improve educational outcomes for Wyoming’s children? I asked that question of Rae Lynn Job, Ellbogen Foundation board member and former state legislator with 34 years of experience in the public schools, and Mauro Diaz, a National Board Certified Teacher and recent selectee for the New York City Teaching Fellows program who is presently teaching life sciences at Dean Morgan Middle School in Casper. Though their approaches differ, both urge Wyoming policy makers to look at Wyoming’s educational challenges more creatively — to encourage innovation, to take bold risks. While neither advocates “budget busting” expenditures to accomplish those ends, they both see funding needs in teacher development and in school infrastructure. With regard to teacher development, Diaz would prefer a less “top down” model for improvement and more teacher autonomy to drive their own professional development and fashion their own career paths. Rae Lynn Job, while committed to development, emphasizes student centered initiatives in early childhood development, a stronger commitment to infrastructure investment and the encouragement of more public/private partnerships particularly with existing Wyoming foundations. Historically, our legislature has demonstrated strong support for education, but student test results and outcomes have been, for many, disappointing. Here, then, is a timely topic and here are stimulating suggestions that should generate discussion. Let the ideas flow. We need them. — Pete
By Rae Lynn Job
— September 30, 2014
“Wyoming is what the rest of the country was,” is a phrase often repeated in our state. The phrase implies that we highly regard our western ethics and independence. That’s valuable. It also communicates a focus on the past and a resistance to change.
What if the people and leaders of this state decided to overcome this resistance and build a more prosperous and secure future for every Wyoming citizen? Given the size of this state, its small population and its resources, that’s entirely possible. It would take the same kind of bold and forward thinking that years ago gave us the sources of our current wealth: the mineral severance tax and the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.
Wyoming requires a balanced budget and I served in the legislature when this was a particularly difficult task because revenues threatened to drop precipitously. I am not advocating for budget-busting spending or spending without evaluating the costs or the consequences. Neither would I recommend additional spending without looking for reductions elsewhere or maintaining reasonable savings. I believe Wyoming can build a robust and prosperous future that still honors our culture and ethics in a fiscally responsible, yet bold manner.
How would we invest the state’s resources?
What Could Be?
I would like Wyoming to strive for healthy, thriving communities everywhere in the state, where citizens have access to health care, mental health services, dental care and quality support and services for pregnant women and families with young children. These communities should have highly effective schools, access to affordable postsecondary training and education for learners of all ages and thriving businesses that offer well-paying jobs. Wyoming could use some of our tax dollars to achieve these goals and not stuff so much into the state’s “coffee cans” — also known as multiple savings accounts.
The state should create an Early Childhood Endowment or Trust Fund that would provide financial assistance to community-based early childhood services and supports across the state. Community coalitions could access this fund and provide a cash match for their request, which would be determined by a community’s size and capacity to raise money. “One-time” dollars should be used to build this endowment until it generates adequate investment income to meet its purpose.
Success in school doesn’t begin on a child’s first day of kindergarten. Healthy prenatal conditions and strong, interactive relationships with adults beginning on the first day of life are critical to a child’s brain development, which then influences success in school and life. Currently in Wyoming, there are several active community-based groups, nonprofit foundations and state agencies working collaboratively to build comprehensive early childhood systems that provide opportunities and support for families with young children.
If we want every child to succeed in kindergarten, read on grade level by third grade, be on track with their course credits in ninth grade, graduate with a diploma, be prepared for success in the labor market or postsecondary training and be a self-sufficient citizen, the leaders of this state should advocate for and provide adequate financial resources for early childhood community coalitions to do this work. Economic research demonstrates that investments in the health, socio-emotional and cognitive development of young children now saves multiple dollars spent later for justice and corrections systems, health care and remedial and social services.
Given the current political climate, some folks in Wyoming would oppose this work as state interference in families. This is a false contention. There is nothing top down or intrusive about this approach. These coalitions are comprised of parents, educators, early care and education providers, businesses and nonprofit organizations that develop solutions that are based on community needs and that fit its culture and customs. Families can access services as they need and want them.
Wyoming has 48 school districts. Our total student population is less than some large urban districts elsewhere in the country. Producing the highest levels of student achievement is possible when there are teachers in every classroom who know their students’ learning strengths and weaknesses, build strong relationships with students and their parents, know their content area in depth, design instruction based on knowledge of their students, analyze student work and continually reflect on their students’ learning.
National Board Certification is a job-embedded, in-depth professional assessment process that identifies the teachers described above. To earn this distinguished certification, teachers must provide clear and consistent evidence that they meet high and rigorous standards of accomplished teaching. Teachers have total control over the quality of the work they submit for scoring. Wyoming leaders, policy makers and parents should set the standard that every Wyoming teacher would either earn this certification or earn a passing score on at least two of the four certification modules within 10 years. Adequate expenditures for the professional development and candidate support necessary for teachers to meet this goal would produce the student achievement results we’ve desired in this state.
This high standard would have a long reach and would initiate efforts to align other essential components of the educational system to the goal of every teacher an accomplished teacher. Higher education and educational organizations would join together to recruit top high school graduates into the profession. Colleges would restructure teacher and educational leader preparation programs. Districts would strengthen new teacher induction and mentoring programs. District and state professional development programs would be designed to help all teachers be more consistent and intentional with best practices in the classroom. Complex and costly accountability and evaluation systems do not ignite this level of analysis or modification, but expectations of excellence do.
Policy makers should also invest in extending the length of the school year to enhance learning, minimize summer learning losses and close achievement gaps. Districts must squeeze student/teacher contact time for professional development, district committee work, and instructional planning because there are few funds to add paid workdays to the year. Time required to administer so many mandated assessments also interferes with instructional time. These are necessary and valuable activities, but the time they require should be added to the year, not subtracted from student learning time.
Public Private Partnerships With A Community Focus
It has taken time in Wyoming to realize that community-based efforts work better than top-down approaches to solving our economic and social challenges. Solving these problems also requires more than just an infusion of money. Our state government could partner with the appropriate organizations in the state to create and fund an organization similar to Bloomberg Philanthropies in New York. A partnership similar to this could help develop local leaders and provide the practical tools and processes that stimulate innovative yet productive thinking in our cities, towns and counties.
Wyoming is blessed to have philanthropic foundations and organizations that are dedicated to improving the lives of our citizens. The state has worked successfully for several years through a public/private partnership with a state foundation to address teacher quality. I believe the formation and use of public/private partnerships to address Wyoming challenges is underutilized. Increasing the number of these partnerships would attract private or nonprofit investments for projects and would increase the likelihood of attaining the intended results of a project because of the expertise, time and commitment nongovernmental entities would bring to the cause.
The coordination of funding streams and other resources that occur among the entities in these partnerships have important benefits. Expenditures on duplication of services decreases and leveraging of assets increases, resulting in higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness for the work.
We’ve been working at building our infrastructure for technology for years, but it’s still incomplete. With wireless options available, we should be able to provide high-speed, high capacity technological connections across the state. This capacity will optimize the delivery of cyber medicine and health care, increase governmental accessibility and efficiency through e-government and mobile-government, deliver personalized electronic learning and training programs to site-based learners of all ages and attract technology-based businesses to Wyoming.
The last and probably the most controversial area of recommended spending would be for Wyoming to create a state-run, consolidated health care program that would leverage the money already being paid in insurance costs and broaden it to cover small business and nonprofit organizations. When the cost of providing health insurance is removed, Wyoming would attract more small businesses and nonprofits to Wyoming. These new enterprises would then create more economic diversity, provide additional jobs and have more revenue to pay higher wages that could shrink income inequality and narrow Wyoming’s outrageously large gender wage gap.
Currently the state pays 85 percent of the health insurance costs for all state employees and educators. Additionally, the state pays significant amounts of money for the children’s health insurance program and the Medicaid program. The numbers would have to be analyzed carefully, but the cost of these approaches weighed against the increased economic activity and income gained might be a reasonable investment for the state.
Additionally, our state’s health care system, providers and our counties would not be coping with the enormous levels of unreimbursed medical costs that exist today. The best benefit of all would be to those citizens who would finally have the security of health care coverage.
I am fortunate to have lived my life in Wyoming. I have benefited immensely from the public schools and the University. I have earned a good living here and had the great privilege of meaningful public service. It’s a good story to tell. Not all Wyoming citizens share this story, nor will future generations unless we meet the social, economic and educational challenges that come with a world changing at an alarming rate due to global competition and technology. It is more imperative than ever for Wyoming’s people and leaders to be bold about our future and courageous with our investments.
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.Sponsored in part by the Wyoming Humanities Council.