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February 06, 2014 8:16 am

AMEND CORNER: Ed department drama obscures true mission

Written by Don Amend

Well, apparently the Wyoming Supreme Court doesn’t listen to me.

A bunch of columns ago, I wrote that I thought the so-called “Hill Bill” that the Wyoming Legislature passed limiting Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill’s powers over the Department of Education would be constitutional.

I based my opinion on the Wyoming Constitution’s provision that “The general supervision of the public schools shall be entrusted to the state superintendent of public instruction, whose powers and duties shall be prescribed by law.” I took that to mean that the Legislature, which has the power to make laws, could define just what general supervision of the public schools involves.

But the justices, or at least three-fifths of them, saw things differently, and that’s not really surprising.  “General Supervision,” is one of those inexact phrases — much like “general welfare” in the U.S. Constitution — that pretty much invite differing interpretations.

That’s no doubt why the state plans to ask the court to rehear the case, and since the state only has to convince one justice to change his or her mind, the issue is still up in the air.

Even so, this decision has, as a friend of mine would put it, tossed a clod in the churn as Wyoming struggles to figure out what to do about education in this state. Rather than actually solve any problems, it intensifies divide between the Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead on one hand and Superintendent Hill on the other hand.

That’s because the court’s ruling, especially since it’s a split decision, doesn’t solve the central questions. Is the superintendent, whoever he/she may be, a free agent who can ignore the will of the Legislature? Can he/she spend money the Legislature appropriates for one purpose on something else? If the Legislature adopts the Common Core Standards, can the superintendent refuse to implement them?

More court action is likely in the forecast.

(Interestingly, this dispute is along the same lines as the  national concern about President Obama’s use of executive orders to get around Congress, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Frankly, speaking as a guy who taught school in this state for one-third of the last century — which I realize makes me a fossil on the subject of education — I don’t think either side should win in this dispute.

Take one of the main points of contention in this dispute. The Legislature has adopted the Common Core Standards for math and language arts that several state governments have come together to develop. Superintendent Hill wants to reject those standards in favor of standards developed within the state to reflect Wyoming’s uniqueness.

As I said in a previous column, I have looked over the language standards in the Common Core, and I think they are workable as a model, although I think they should be more flexible. On the other hand, a friend of mine, a retired biology teacher, does not like the Common Core science standards at all. Among his objections are that the standards would eliminate some classroom experiences he feels are valuable.

Each of us are probably right in some respect, and that’s just the trouble with writing standards into law, as the Legislature has done.  Standards are, by their nature, arbitrary lists of objectives. No matter how carefully they are developed, they are based on the skills and knowledge their developers value; consequently, they will reflect the biases of the developers as well.

Writing standards into law in effect freezes those values and biases in place. A change that may be desirable, even crucial, becomes, not a matter of educational judgment, but a political issue, and it may take several elections to make the changes.

This reality would not change if the standards were developed within the state. The standards would still be arbitrary, and in this case, based in part on the perception of Wyoming’s uniqueness.

That uniqueness itself is more myth than reality when it comes to education. Wyoming students will be competing among students from all over the nation for places in colleges and jobs, so they need the same skills in language, mathematics and science that students in other states do.

Given those needs, the only difference between our Wyoming standards and those developed nationally would be political. Wyoming’s own brand of “political correctness” would be part of the standards, and competing ideas would likely be stifled.

Some time ago, for example, I wrote about efforts by state Republican leaders to purge the party of candidates who don’t adhere to rigid orthodoxy. I suspect that, given the power, they would attempt to instill the same orthodoxy into the standards, robbing our students of seeing a broader view and indoctrinating them rather than educating them.

As I said, I’m not sure which side I want to prevail in court drama, but I hope it will be resolved sooner rather than later.

Right now, it’s detracting from the main question: How can we best educate Wyoming kids?

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