In less than a month Wyoming voters will narrow the field of candidates for Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction, one of the state’s most important elected positions. The August 19th primary election marks the first step in deciding who will lead the state Department of Education, an agency that has been embroiled in controversy over the past four years.
Three Republicans and one Democrat seek their party’s nomination for superintendent in the general election this November. The next superintendent faces the task of mending four years of acrimony from legislation, lawsuits, and investigations over management of the state’s public schools.
The primary duties of the office include serving on the State Loan and Investment Board, and managing the state’s Department of Education, which oversees Wyoming public schools and the 92,000 students they serve. The 115-person agency has a budget of $260 million.
In the 2010 election, roughly 95,000 voters cast a ballot for the Republican primary for superintendent. Assuming a similar turnout this year, the winning GOP candidate will need about 32,000 votes to move on to the general election.
As voters evaluate their four choices for superintendent, they may recognize a number of common threads in the campaigns.
— All four said an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction should lead Wyoming Department of Education (WDE), rather than an appointee selected by the governor.
— The candidates all support raising Wyoming’s educational standards and increasing public outreach about standards.
— All four candidates favor local control over education, and want to resist increasing federal involvement in Wyoming’s public school system. All are concerned about the overuse of tests and the autonomy of teachers in the classroom.
Ultimately, the candidates agree on many policy issues, and all have significant leadership experience in large, complex organizations. Two of the candidates are former teachers who served as high-level administrators in state agencies, while the other two rose to high-level positions in the military and the private sector:
- Sheryl Lain (R) of Cheyenne is an instructional leader and reading specialist who has worked closely with current Superintendent Cindy Hill at the Department of Education.
- Jillian Balow (R) of Cheyenne is the Family Assistance Division manager at the Department of Family Services, where she oversees nearly 200 people and manages programs with a budget of more than $100 million.
- Bill Winney (R) of Bondurant is a former nuclear submarine commander who once commanded the U.S.S. Holland with a crew of 1,400 people.
- Mike Ceballos (D) of Cheyenne worked 14 years as president of Qwest for Wyoming, where he had 1,000 employees and a budget in the hundreds of millions.
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Tensions over education in Wyoming grew after the election of Superintendent Cindy Hill (R) in 2010. She and legislators fell into a policy tug-of-war over how to best improve schools. Legislators on the Joint Education Committee favored a testing and school improvement system, while Hill preferred professional development and collaboration among teachers.
In 2013 when the legislature passed Senate File 104, a sweeping bill that transferred most of the Superintendent’s duties to manage the Department of Education to an appointed director. Sponsors of the bill said it aimed to fix the long-standing structural problem of the Department of Education not properly carrying out legislative actions.
Hill framed the bill as a personal attack and an effort to “take away the people’s vote” for superintendent. In response, she and her supporters filed suit to overturn Senate File 104, while Gov. Matt Mead oversaw an inquiry into alleged fiscal and managerial malfeasance on the part of Hill. In January 2014, the Wyoming Supreme Court declared Senate File 104 unconstitutional, setting up Hill’s return to the Department later in the spring.
Earlier this month, the legislature released preliminary results of an investigation in Hill’s leadership of the WDE. The report suggests Hill’s alleged request for political loyalty from state employees is grounds for impeachment. It noted other findings of potentially improper hiring and federal grant reporting. Hill dismissed the report as an elaborate and expensive maneuver by her opponents in the legislature during an election year. She is running for governor against incumbent Matt Mead (R), and challengers Taylor Haynes (R) and Pete Gosar (D).
Meanwhile, a second front of controversy has opened over opposition to the Common Core State Standards. Opponents say the standards entangle Wyoming in a nationwide effort to homogenize education and strip away local control of schools. Similarly, Wyoming became the first state to reject the Next Generation Science Standards earlier this year, largely due to the standards’ treatment of climate change.
Incumbent Superintendent Cindy Hill is stepping down and running for Wyoming governor. As her tenure comes to a close, several candidates believe Wyoming is looking for a superintendent who can repair the controversies of the past four years.
“The role of the Superintendent at this point right now needs to be to heal a broken system,” said candidate Jillian Balow. She formerly worked in the WDE before becoming the social services policy advisor to Gov. Mead, and local government liaison to the State Land and Investment Board. She then moved to the Department of Family Services.
“Right now there is so much chaos about who is making decisions that everyone is taking the reins,” she said. “That is why our legislature has taken such a heavy hand in education, and I think they are anxious to get out of that business.”
Balow said the next superintendent should move forward with existing education initiatives that are, “at a standstill or being stonewalled by the current administration. … We need to bring some closure and continuity to those efforts, and that is what is going to propel education forward. … We can’t afford to have a lack of leadership for another four years.”
Bill Winney said he would be a superintendent who works to find common ground with the legislature, with give and take on both sides.
“I want to sit down with them, talk to them about what I want to do, and what they want to do, and see if we can find common ground,” Winney said. “You’ve got to be willing to work with people.”
Winney said he aims to improve coordination between the superintendent and the legislature.
“The legislature needs to be comfortable that the leadership at the Department of Education is going to do the things they want done, and they haven’t been confident of that,” Winney said.
Ceballos said he has experience in getting disparate groups to work toward a common goal, whether in his work with Qwest or in his past roles as president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, and Cheyenne LEADS, an economic development organization. He’s also been a private sector advisor in Wyoming education efforts dealing with standards review, the Hathaway Scholarship, broadband expansion, and other topics.
“Education is a very complex organization that by its nature is going to be involved in differences of opinion, and that’s not just of parents, of employers and communities,” Ceballos said. “I have had the practical experience of working with groups through those issues.”
Ceballos is focused on increasing public participation and awareness of education issues. He’s currently working on a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Wyoming, investigating the role of the public in public education.
“If there has been any good news in the last four years, it’s that there has been more interest in education,” Ceballos said. “There is a great need for public participation in education.”
Lain, the only candidate who is a current employee at the WDE, also said she’s seen more people paying attention to education issues during Cindy Hill’s tenure.
“I think that we’ve gotten ourselves into a realm of questioning,” Lain said. “I think it is a good thing to have parents and the public reading up on Common Core. … This is a democracy, and I see people taking action. I think it is good.”
Lain, a former teacher, instructional coach, and reading consultant, is a strong believer that teacher training is key to improving Wyoming schools. However, she says she will support the legislature’s program to use testing to hold school administrators and teachers accountable.
“Accountability is the law and it will be followed,” Lain said. She said the law still needs to flesh out how the Department of Education will work to improve schools and support teachers. “That’s a good conversation to have, and that’s what we need to be focusing on.”
Lain wants to reassert the importance of local control in Wyoming’s schools. “So many feel that their capacity to be professional in the classroom is being restricted by federalizing education and centralizing it at the state level,” Lain said. “I want to be part of that conversation to reassert the balance.”
Several of this year’s candidates said they had concerns about the amount of testing students go through in Wyoming schools. These tests include the PAWS statewide assessment in 3rd through 8th grades, and again in 11th grade; the MAP assessment, the ACT and others.
“The amount of testing we are doing is beyond an appropriate amount,” Winney said. “I think we are beyond that point of diminishing returns.”
Lain also says testing would be among the top things she would address if elected. “The first thing I would do is to reinvigorate our teachers who feel barraged by testing,” she said. “I know a teacher who did not see her kids for three weeks due to testing.”
Ceballos is not sure using tests to hold schools and teachers accountable will touch on some of the areas most important of student growth. “The (doctoral) research I am doing shows that the two big areas that are really relevant to student success is home environment and prior achievement and skills,” he said. “It’s the skills they bring to class that are influenced by early childhood education.”
Standards and local control
One of the most controversial issues in Wyoming education relates to the creation and revision of statewide standards.
“Every step we take into Common Core, we take a step away from local control,” Balow said. “In 2012 the Common Core standards were adopted with no changes. … That’s a concern that tells me not all voices were heard.” Balow promises to reopen the review process on the Common Core Standards on her first day in office, if elected.
Lain plans to take a slower approach to reviewing the Common Core, which would fit within the existing cycle of standards review.
“The Common Core standards in reading and writing and math are in place,” she said. ”You work within the rules and that is part of the rules right now.” She said the current process would require new standards every five years. “That gives us a few years to talk about it and not circumvent our process and lose our opportunity to get input from teachers and parents.”
Winney thinks some aspects of the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards could be useful to Wyoming, particularly if local schools take the opportunity to pick and choose the standards that work for them.
“Very clearly Wyoming is capable of developing its own standards,” Winney said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t some decent pieces within programs like (Common Core).”
Ceballos believes in citizen participation in the standards review process. He served on the public Standards Review Steering Committee that has guided review on standards for all subjects.
“Our law says (standards have) to be run through our system,” Ceballos said. “There are four times in our law that it is required for these standards to have public input, and I absolutely agree with that.”
Ceballos also says he agrees with Wyoming’s current law, which says only school districts at the local level can decide what curriculum and texts teachers use in their classrooms. He said he’s not afraid to push back against the federal government, noting that during his time at Qwest he sued the government 10 times and won nine of the cases.
With regard to the Next Generation Science Standards, he thinks the state is getting hung up on just a few issues that are preventing good standards from being implemented.
“If we are using 10 year old standards we are depriving our students,” Ceballos said. “My cellphone is not 10 years old. My computer is not 10 years old.”
Early childhood education
Perhaps the biggest policy divergence among the candidates is early childhood programs, which researchers say can play a large role in getting kids at the proper grade level early in elementary school, and then keeping them on track through high school graduation.
In her capacity at a director of the Family Assistance Division at the Department of Family Services, Balow has supported state efforts to create a grant program to help private pre-kindergarten programs coordinate with public schools.
“How do we as a state remove barriers so communities can develop their programs with minimal intrusion?” Balow said. “The grant program that we are ready to roll out is going to reflect that.” She noted that she opposes universal preschool or state preschool programs that mandate what communities need to do to prepare kids for kindergarten.
Winney says early childhood programs can help save the state money. “If you can figure out if they have developmental problems early on, it’s good for the young person and cheaper for the state,” he said. “You have to be careful not to create a nanny state where you educate students from birth to first grade.”
In contrast, Lain said she doesn’t believe that the state needs to do more to get kids kindergarten ready.
“I don’t accept the premise that children start out behind,” Lain said. “That’s how we go about centralizing and federalizing, is creating this sense there is this huge emergency and we need to step in.”
Lain says she would focus on the teacher-student-parent relationship. “That’s what I know to be true and I hope we don’t lose sight of that no matter what happens,” she said.
Balow urged voters to participate in the primary election.
“This is a vitally important primary election, and we need to make sure we have good voter turnout at the primaries on August 19th,” she said.