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May 06, 2014 7:26 am

AMEND CORNER: Wyoming Republican Party’s family feud turning into a circus

Written by Don Amend

The Republican circus continued last weekend with the failure of an effort by Republican rebels to censure Gov. Matt Mead during the party’s state convention.

The debate is all part of efforts by some Republicans to brand the governor and several members of the Legislature, including Cody’s Sen. Hank Coe, as too liberal to be Republicans.

Well, I’ve been following Wyoming politics for so long that the first governor I ever talked to was Gov. Mead’s grandfather, Cliff Hansen, and I interviewed Mead for the Tribune in 2010. Based on that first-hand experience, I find the notion that Mead is not a conservative hilarious. The very idea is absurd.

Still, the Republican dissidents are trying to convince us that he is too liberal. Some have called him the worst governor in Wyoming’s history. That statement is a measure of just how shallow their thinking is, since I doubt many of the people who are laying that title on Mead could name more than five or six of Wyoming’s 30 previous governors, let alone know enough about Wyoming history to compare him with all those other governors.

The entire case against Mead centers on two actions by the state Legislature: the attempt to limit the power of Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill and the adoption of the Common Core Standards for Wyoming schools.

Frankly, I don’t remember any big noise in Hill’s favor from the Republican right when she was a candidate in 2010. When I interviewed her then, she didn’t say anything particularly earthshaking that would have distinguished her from other Republicans. In fact, she didn’t differ much from her Democratic opponent, Mike Massie.

When I interviewed her, she approved of the funding provided for the schools and said student achievement wasn’t improving. She supported local control and criticized the incumbent superintendent for using top-down directives rather than assisting local districts.

Her focus would be on the children, she said, and she wanted to make sure they had effective teachers and adequate support. She criticized the federal No Child Left Behind law and would work with parents, teachers and community members to improve schools and develop a replacement for PAWS, the state’s tool for measuring student progress.

All of those positions were pretty generic for a candidate seeking the superintendent’s office, and hardly differed at all from Massie’s. Her only specifically conservative position was her anti-union stance, blaming the Wyoming Education Association for being a roadblock to reform in the state’s schools.

The Common Core Standards didn’t come up, because they were not an issue in 2010.

Given her generic positions, it’s really no surprise that her performance early in her term was no different from that of her predecessors, and that is exactly what frustrated the legislators.

They had been unhappy with the performance of Hill’s immediate predecessor, Jim McBride, and his predecessor, Trent Blankenship, who had bailed out halfway through his term in the face of criticism concerning his performance. Blankenship had initiated PAWS, and problems with the test during McBride’s term called its usefulness into question.

The ongoing problems, coupled with concerns about some of Hill’s expenditures, led the Legislature to pass the bill limiting her responsibilities — a bill later found unconstitutional by the Wyoming Supreme Court — and launch an investigation into her fiscal performance in office.

In the meantime, various groups began expressing opposition to the Common Core objectives, and the Republican rebels adopted that opposition to attack Mead and legislators, Coe among them, who had voted to adopt the standards.

I’m not a fan of the Legislature’s actions with regard to education. I think many of their efforts are wrong-headed and counter-productive.

But while I question the Legislature’s actions, I think they have done the right thing concerning the Department of Education. Despite the Supreme Court decision, I believe the Legislature needed to question what Hill was doing. Her performance may not be as bad as the legislators think, but it hasn’t been outstanding, either. One guest columnist in this space recently gave her credit for an increase in test scores, but that position doesn’t hold water. I’m not even sure there was significant improvement, and if there was, the credit belongs to efforts by parents and educators who directly influence kids, not anything the Legislature or Hill did.

Nor do I buy the anti-Mead position that either the governor or the Legislature went against the will of the voters. Those same voters put Mead, who received nearly 11,000 more votes than Hill, in office, too, and they expect him to make sure state government does what it’s supposed to do.

As for the Common Core standards, opposition to them is not solely a conservative position. Opposition is also coming from liberal groups, and that’s predictable. Almost any attempt to develop such standards would meet opposition, especially from the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum. The Common Core Standards are no different, and in any case, they have been grossly misrepresented by those who oppose them.

As I’ve said before, this conflict is doing our school kids no service. It’s time to put aside insistence on ideological purity and political ambition, which are the roots of this conflict, in favor of those kids. An open and objective discussion of the issues is necessary if we are ever going to achieve the results we desire from our schools.

In the end, that’s what we elected these people to do.

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