CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The full Wyoming Senate on Monday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping education reform bill that would drastically reduce the administrative role of state's top public schools official.
Senate File 104 passed by a vote of 19-to-10 after a two-hour hearing on Monday afternoon. The bill, which is sponsored by legislative leaders of both houses and both parties, would remove the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction as head of the state Department of Education and transfer nearly all the superintendent's duties to a new agency director to be appointed by the governor.
Passing the bill would be a blow for Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, leaving her to preside essentially only over a ceremonial position. She had sat in the Senate chambers during some of the debate but efforts to reach her afterward were unsuccessful.
The bill comes after lawmakers have increasingly expressed frustration with what they say is Hill's failure to implement education accountability measures, meaning tracking student performance against the state's sizeable investment in public education.
Sponsors of the legislation say Hill has failed to provide information about student performance. They also say she has ignored legislative directives to stop a teacher training program while presiding over an exodus of seasoned personnel at the education department.
Hill wrote to all lawmakers on Dec. 31 defending her record.
"We did what we what we were asked, we stand ready to implement all direction given in the upcoming legislative session," she wrote. "We have completed all assigned tasks and missed no deadlines."
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has sparred openly with Hill in recent months and urged his fellow senators to pass the bill to strip her of power.
"Oversight of education is the duty of the Wyoming Legislature," Coe said. "Over the course of the last several years, it has become clear that the current governance structure for education simply doesn't work."
Senate Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, had served until this session as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said the need for reorganizing the education department has become increasingly apparent to the committee over the past two years.
Nicholas said the Legislature last year prohibited Hill's administration from raiding money from other programs to fund a "teacher to teacher" program, in which teachers were paid to instruct other teachers on weekends. He said Hill changed the name of the program, but essentially kept it in operation in defiance of the Legislature by raiding other programs over the past year.
"Folks what's important here is that every one of the accounts that was set up and every expense code, was established by us in the Legislature," Nicholas said. He said that any legislator who was prepared to have their directives ignored could vote to continue without changing the current system.
"We can simply give a block grant, and say, 'here's a block grant, and come back in five years and tell us whether you met our goals,'" Nicholas said.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said he didn't like the bill's approach. While he said many of the sponsors are his friends and respected colleagues, he noted that the bill wasn't the work of the Legislature's Education Committee during the interim.
"I do know that one way you don't try to fix things is fast and furious," Case said. He said the Legislature could initiate impeachment proceedings, "if there's something really rotten," but said, "I'm not convinced we should do this based on a bill that's an individual bill, not a committee bill. I'm not ready to do this."
The Senate is scheduled to hear the bill a second time on Tuesday. It must clear three votes in the Senate before it would head to the House.