Updates from Representative Sommers
Education, PAWS, School Safety
by Albert Sommers, House District #20
June 14, 2015
June 8, 2015
Hello Sublette County, following the June 3rd meeting of the Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability, the Joint Education Committee met in Saratoga on June 4th and 5th. Several issues of importance to Sublette County were discussed at this meeting.
We heard from Governor Mead’s office, the Wyoming Department of Education, the Community College Commission, and the University of Wyoming on college and career readiness. A Georgetown University study suggests Wyoming will need more workers in coming years with a higher education, especially those with post-secondary certificates. These certificates are usually in the Career Technical Education (CTE) fields, which includes, but not limited to, welders, diesel mechanics, and computer programmers. We learned enrollment in high school CTE classes was decreasing, and that schools were providing fewer opportunities. There was a discussion that a focus on the Success Curriculum for the Hathaway Scholarship has created winners and losers, and the losers are CTE and the arts, courses that can actually keep students engaged in high school. Wyoming needs to find ways to promote CTE courses, as 4 year degrees are not the right track for every student.
School Safety continues to be an important topic in Wyoming, and we heard a report from Wyoming’s Attorney General, Peter Michael, on Colorado’s Safe2Tell program, which is a programmatic approach for prevention of school violence, including an anonymous tip line. I am a supporter of the Safe2Tell program, but we must first find out if local districts support the program, and we must ensure that it does not duplicate good programs from of our Prevention Management Organization. We need to create a unified approach to prevention of bullying, suicide, and other forms of school violence. Testimony from school districts focused on a need for more School Resource Officers (SROs), who provide security and prevention programs within schools. SROs are costly, so many districts utilize some of their block grant money, coupled with a partnership with local law enforcement to fund a few SROs. During recalibration of the school funding model we will examine the feasibility of the state providing SROs to school districts.
We heard from the new dean of the College of Education at the University of Wyoming, Dr. Ray Reutzel, a UW doctoral graduate, about the university’s plans to make the College of Education a preeminent college in professional educator preparation. The College of Education affects more citizens of the state of Wyoming than any other college, because it produces a substantial percentage of the teachers educating Wyoming’s children.
The committee had a roundtable discussion with Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, the State Board of Education, led by Chairman Pete Gosar, and Jim Rose, Director of the Wyoming Community College Commission. The discussion revolved around the need to collaborate more in solving some of the tough educational issues in Wyoming, like effective education in our Native American population. All agreed that we need to work on the gaps that occur between pre-school and kindergarten, among school districts, between high school and college, and between our community colleges and the University of Wyoming. We need to have good communication between all of the players in Wyoming’s educational community as we work towards more seamless transitions between institutions.
Finally, we discussed the recreation mill levy that local districts can assess. We heard testimony from a Riverton man who was concerned that Shoshoni received more tax dollars than Riverton, with a fraction of the population. He requested that our committee examine whether the recreation mill should be equalized between all school districts in the state, similar to the recapture that occurred with our school mills. Equalization would likely result in Sublette County school districts losing a considerable amount of their recreational dollars to poorer districts. According to an estimate from our Legislative Service Office, Sublette School District #1 received about $3 million last year, and Sublette #9 received about $530,000. Several school districts around the state received less than $100,000, and the large district surrounding Laramie received just $380,000. Sublette County school districts, for the most part, spend these recreational dollars to support the Pinedale Aquatic Center and the community center in Marbleton. Without these dollars, our community centers would have a hard time covering maintenance costs. I spoke to the committee about the importance of these facilities to our communities, and that any attempt to recapture optional recreation mills would certainly lead to another series of lawsuits. The attorney general representative in charge of education cautioned against heading down the path of equalization. We will hear more testimony in October about this issue, but it remains to be seen whether the committee will take it up. Are we going to equalize all tax bases in Wyoming, and create some gigantic formula to equalize funding throughout the state? I believe that is a more socialistic view than most Wyomingites could support.
June 7, 2015
Hello Sublette County, on June 3rd I attended a meeting of the Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability in Saratoga. This is the first interim that I have served on the Accountability Committee.
In 2011 and 2012, prior to my tenure in the legislature, the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act became law. Wyoming’s version of accountability resulted from a national movement to utilize standardized tests to address education inequities among students. The national movement culminated in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and later in President Obama’s Race to the Top and a waiver to No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind had objectives that were unattainable, and most schools remain in noncompliance with the Act. Noncompliance can jeopardize federal funding, and can result in local districts losing some of their autonomy. The waiver to No Child Left Behind, which was put in place to sidestep the onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind, mandated school and teacher accountability policies. Wyoming followed this path, and local control of education was eroded in our state. I am not opposed to school or teacher accountability, but I believe it is the job of every community and the school boards they elect, not the state. However, the statutes are in place, and we must now find a way to make the system work for districts, and not against them. In the last session, I was successful in ameliorating some of these requirements. In fact, the House voted to eliminate teacher accountability, but ultimately backed away from that position in conference committee, after the Senate would not budge. However, last session’s discussions led to great debate on teacher accountability during our June 3 meeting.
One of the main topics at our meeting was Wyoming’s next assessment system. Wyoming currently utilizes a very expensive testing vehicle, which nobody likes: the PAWS assessment. Everyone agrees we need a new test, one that is cheaper and utilizes more instructive testing features. To that end, the Legislature last session authorized an assessment task force, consisting of parents, educators and academics, to develop Wyoming’s next generation proficiency test. I continue to hear from constituents in Sublette County, both parents and educators, who believe we are over-testing children. During our meeting, multiple legislators spoke about the over-testing issue. One amendment I placed into law last session was a requirement that the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) request an exemption from the US Department of Education for a reduced testing structure. No Child Left Behind mandates standardized tests in grades 3-8, and then less testing in high school. We heard from the WDE that approval was unlikely under existing federal law, but that may change. Congress is slogging its way through a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind that appears to have more respect for state and local control.
In light of pending Congressional action on assessments, our Select Committee on Accountability passed a motion to write a letter to our Wyoming delegation requesting that the reauthorization act include provisions to allow states more control on their assessment structures, including reduced testing, and that there should be no federal mandate for statewide teacher accountability. This is a paradigm shift of philosophy in the Legislature, and gives me hope that statewide accountability will become more user friendly.
In 2010, Wyoming passed legislation which gave specific direction to districts with regard to teacher evaluations, but before the ink was dry and the statute tested, we started down the path of teacher accountability. I hope we keep teacher accountability on hold, and let districts utilize the system we mandated a few years ago and are currently using. We passed a motion at the June 3rd meeting giving direction to our Advisory Committee, made up mostly of educators, to set aside teacher accountability, and work on leader accountability, especially leader credentialing. Do prospective principals and superintendents have the course work, mentoring and experience necessary to be successful in Wyoming schools?