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Despite a statewide ban on a controversial set of K-12 science benchmarks, local school districts in Wyoming likely can use the standards freely.

The budget footnote prohibiting the Wyoming Department of Education and state Board of Education from spending money to review or adopt the Next Generation Science Standards does not apply to the budgets school districts use to buy educational materials like textbooks, said Mary Kay Hill, policy director for Gov. Matt Mead.

"We always emphasize that standards establish the basic bar of what students should know and be able to do," Hill said in an email to the Star-Tribune. "There is ample language in statute to assure district boards have the authority to select curriculum (and) textbooks."

Whether or not those materials are based on the Next Generation standards, the footnote does not apply to those budgets.

District funding is provided to districts as a block grant from the school foundation fund, and the footnote applies only to the separate sources of funding for the state Board of Education and the Department of Education.

Districts are given broad authority to expend state funds as they see fit, Hill said.

Still, some school district officials have sought a legal opinion before exploring the standards after the footnote passed in March, banning them statewide.

Dave Applegate, chairman of the Natrona County School District board of trustees, said some board members and staff members in Natrona County wanted to discuss the Next Generation standards.

Before talks started, the board asked its attorney, Kathleen Dixon, for an opinion on whether local boards could review or adopt some or all of the Next Generation standards as part of the local curriculum, Applegate said. He declined to explain the nature of the legal opinion.

"Actions that we would take now or in the future would be in concurrence with that opinion," he said. "We have no intention at this point of taking any action."

The Natrona County School District trustees discussed the standards at their two most recent work sessions.

As many as 15 school districts in Wyoming are using the new standards, according to Hill. That includes Campbell County School District, which piloted a new science curriculum based on the modes of thinking emphasized in the Next Generation standards and plans to expand the program next year.

Roger Spears, a science instructional facilitator in Goshen County School District, said his district has been using the Next Generation standards for three years. 

"We have not had any discussions about what if any ramifications there might be regarding the footnote," Spears wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune.

He said the district was in a "wait and see" mode until after July 1, when the budget footnote technically takes effect.

Many of the other roughly 15 districts using the standards are wondering the same thing, he said.

"We do feel that we currently have a curriculum that not only meets but exceeds the current state standards," he said. "And the Next Generation Science Standards has been (an) integral part of that development."

So long as a district meets the current state standards, it has the freedom to adopt whatever curriculum it wants, said Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association.

Traditionally in Wyoming, the state sets the standards, or expectations. Districts choose the curriculum, which is how teachers will teach those expectations.

"Standards are set by the state as kind of the what that is expected from students as far as a curricular outcome," Farmer said. "Curriculum is the how and the why. It fills in the blanks of really delivering the content information to the students."

Farmer hasn't heard from any districts expressing concern over whether their use of the Next Generation standards will be challenged, he said.

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Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or leah.todd@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.

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