The problem with the Wyoming Department of Education is not Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill.
She is merely a symptom, and what's become a painful reminder of a system that needs changing in order to better serve the students in Wyoming's classrooms who will soon be the future of our state.
We've chronicled the shortcomings and problems of the department. We've also editorialized about the poor leadership and troubling trends within the department. While it is true that much of the blame lies at Hill's feet, the problem -- and danger -- is believing this is a problem solely created by Hill.
Believing that Hill has created the problem alone would be to discount the previous superintendents, many of whom were decent at politics but rather tepid when it came to running a visionary department of education, if such a phrase can even be used.
To be sure, some of the gaffes, miscues and mishandling information are certainly products of Hill's administration. Yet, those cases only serve to demonstrate why the entire system needs change.
Becoming the top education official in Wyoming is a political process, not a matter of who is best suited to lead. Winning proves that you can win an election. It usually proves the candidate is a Republican. Yet, in no way does it demonstrate aptitude, ability or knowledge of public education.
Because of this, we believe a Constitutional initiative must be started to change the way the Superintendent of Public Instruction is chosen. It must be left in the hands of the governor to call for, screen and appoint someone with an education background extensive enough to guarantee the department's success.
The logical fallacy that crops up when discussing the department is that many folks believe that just because they went to school, they could run a school. Instead, school districts and schools require an incredible background in administration, coupled with complex and rigorous laws like the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, as well as No Child Left Behind. Couple that with local school accountability measures and standardized testing, and this is a job which needs a deep educational background, not necessarily a bonafide political resume.
Hill is right when she points out that high turnover within the state department of education has led to some problems, including the institutional knowledge and expertise to meet the Legislature's and the federal government's requirements.
Yet interviews with former longtime staff members point to internal problems created by Hill and her administration. This isn't to say that Hill's agenda was wrong. Or, that she, as the leader of the department, shouldn't have been allowed to make changes. Yet, the one of the largest problems the department faces is that employees have the constant threat of political instability.
As long as the superintendent of public instruction is an elected position, it will be vulnerable to political pressure. That is, the position will necessarily become a referendum on schools, and given to fits of populism. Because the position is political, it has the tendency to cause fear among employees that worry about implementing a political agenda instead of good educational policy. Employees are reluctant to start long-term programs that could be derailed by the next superintendent, even if those programs and policies could yield long-term gains.
Again, that's not necessarily saying Hill is wrong. It's that the instability and turnover inherent in a Constitutionally-mandated position creates part of this problem. Good people may not stick around when the leader changes every four years, and with it the agenda for progress. Good qualified educational leaders also want to work for someone who understands the complexities of education, not works primarily as a politician.
The greatest way to change the Wyoming Department of Education is not to change Hill. It's all about changing the law.