CHEYENNE — Lawmakers soon will evaluate a series of proposals that would radically change the way education is provided in Wyoming.
One of the most significant legislative proposals coming before the 61st Wyoming Legislature's general session, which begins Jan. 11, is a reform package that tells schools to provide results or let the state take over.
It also holds educators responsible for student achievement.
Other pitches include eliminating teacher tenure and giving parents more control over what happens to failing schools.
The Education Accountability Act represents a dramatic shift in philosophy. Under current state statute, a board of trustees is the governing body for a school district and has the final say about what happens within that local district. The legislative accountability proposal shifts that ultimate responsibility to the state.
Frustration among lawmakers is high. Wyoming struggles with a high dropout rate, mediocre test scores and poorly performing college students backed by a pricey $1.3 billion K-12 education system.
Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, said lawmakers still value local control. Districts that meet the achievement targets set by the state won't be penalized. But struggling districts may no longer get the same freedom to determine how block grant dollars are spent.
For example, a failing district that doesn't meet the state's recommendations for class size may be required to spend its money to ensure that kindergarten through sixth-grade classrooms don't exceed 16 students and that grades 7-12 don't exceed the recommended ratio of 21 students for each teacher.
Meanwhile, school districts have argued that it's difficult to reduce class sizes without the money to build additional classrooms.
Teeters said the state's education philosophy changed when the Wyoming Supreme Court decided that the state is ultimately responsible for providing a high-quality education. It also means the state's financial gatekeepers are responsible for how taxpayer dollars are spent to pay for that education.
"I think it's perfectly acceptable for people to demand accountability," he said.
But while everyone wants accountability, the bill's data collection requirements could be overly burdensome without providing meaningful information on student progress, Mike Massie, outgoing Democratic state senator from Laramie and director of Child Development Services of Wyoming, said.
"The bill confuses assessment with accountability," he said. "That's why it looks so much like the federal No Child Left Behind (Act)."
Different versions of the proposal also set forth different criteria for measuring school success. The narrowest requirements would focus on school-level proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics. Broader standards could include science proficiency, college entrance exam scores and the percentage of students collecting a Hathaway scholarship, in addition to core subject areas.
A design team made up of educators, lawmakers and school trustees would determine the benchmarks, as well as rewards and consequences, for the schools that meet or miss these goals. And it's possible that board members of failing schools could lose some decision-making authority to the state.
Massie said he'd prefer a collaborative effort between the Wyoming Department of Education and school leaders to micromanagement.
"Why are (the design team members) in a better position to tell us what quality education is needed for our community?" he said. "What we need is a partnership in order to help (a failing school) get better."
He said there are some redeeming parts that would track how much time is taken away from classroom instruction to administer standardized tests. But the legislation also sets up an overly large design team that would include the chairs of the education committee that sponsored the original measure.
"It really is a state version of No Child Left Behind," Massie added.
Mark Higdon, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said the state needs a better state assessment. He added that he believes most of the state's school board members would agree with the legislative proposal and that all school boards support greater accountability.
Longtime proponent of local control Rep. Amy Edmonds, R-Cheyenne, agreed with Teeters that the Wyoming Supreme Court gave the final responsibility to the Legislature. And they are the ones who are accountable to parents and taxpayers. She added that it's a duty state lawmakers take seriously.
But she also agreed with newly elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill that local control is ultimately between the parent, teacher and student.
Edmonds said there's a lot of frustration with top-heavy bureaucratic systems, and she's concerned that the Education Accountability Act could be another version of the same bureaucracy. She's also troubled that parents aren't included as part of the state accountability design team.
"I understand why we're doing it, but I'm a little worried about it," she added.
Other reforms proposed
And while the accountability legislation is the largest reform bill up for review during the 2011 general session, it's not the only one.
Edmonds said she's drafting a proposal to add a "Parent Trigger." It's an innovative approach that allows parents to initiate change in a local school if more than half of them sign a petition. The results would force a school board to determine whether a public school should be converted into a charter school or whether a school's leadership should be replaced.
"It's the ultimate local control," she said. "I think it adds another layer beyond the heavy hand of the state."
Edmonds also is bringing forward two pieces of legislation to encourage the opening of charter schools.
It's been difficult for contracted, publicly funded schools to gain approval when every district has its own application.
One of her proposals is to put the State Board of Education in charge of the review process to ensure uniformity and quality. She noted that the local school district would retain a representative on the review committee.
Edmonds said her other proposal would streamline the appeals process for denied applications. It also gives the State Board of Education authority to approve a charter for previously denied applicants.
Meanwhile, several state lawmakers are drafting legislation to end teacher tenure. States like Colorado have considered reforming teacher tenure systems to hold longtime teachers accountable for results. In Wyoming, a teacher earns tenure after three years teaching in a particular district. Contracts are renewed annually until tenured teachers resign, retire or are lawfully dismissed.
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said it's not a fix that would happen overnight.
"If a teacher has been there for 30 years or three years, if they're not doing the job, there has to be changes," he said.
It's also debatable whether tenure reform alone could improve educational performance. Coe said the state has attracted good teachers into the state because of its high wages. Wyoming Education Association President Kathryn Valido said tenure gives teachers job stability and provides an appeals process for termination.
Funding model review under way
Attempts to strengthen accountability also fit into the larger task of school recalibration. The Legislature adjusts the school funding model every five years to ensure that its $1.3 billion investment is fairly divided among Wyoming's 48 school districts.
The money for education is parceled out in block grants to individual school districts and isn't earmarked for specific purposes beyond salaries and employee benefits. The rest of the spending is determined by local administrators. The distribution method is based on the premise that local districts know best how to educate local students and should be free to spend a majority of their money where it's needed.
For example, living expenses are higher for teachers in Jackson than in a community like Casper. And it costs rural districts more for cafeteria equipment and transportation than urban schools, which can share resources across a single district.
The Legislature doesn't want to dictate how school districts handle their business, Rep. Bernadine Craft, D-Rock Springs, said.
"We do not want to micromanage," she said. "We don't want to tell local school administrators how to run their schools. We make suggestions regarding class size and the number of administrators a school district should have based on the number of teachers. But we don't tell school districts what to do."
At the same time, lawmakers want greater accountability because schools spend state money.
Rep. Del McOmie, R-Lander, said it's disappointing that some districts haven't embraced the school funding model.
"And with block grants, they don't have to do that," he said.
Craft said one change that everyone can expect is a different test to measure student progress. The Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students, or PAWS, exam has proved inadequate to provide meaningful feedback on student learning. Last year, school districts also experienced technical difficulties that froze or deleted online tests.
Some possible replacements include the ACT test at the high school level and the Measures of Academic Progress exams for elementary and junior high students.
Valido said reviewing the state funding model and other education components will strengthen the state's education system. People forget that education in Wyoming wasn't always fully funded. School improvement takes time. And lawmakers should be wary of widespread reform when schools and students have individualized needs.
"I'm not sure something that's called 'statewide' is the solution," she said. "I don't think there is a formal strategic plan, and frankly, I don't know who'd put it together."
Valido said there's value in the accountability bill's attempt to collect more data on education results. It's difficult to require accountability under state law, but she said the proposal remains a piece of reform worth discussing.