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Washington Gridlock Hurting Educators In Wyoming


This summer there's been a big push by the nation's powerful teacher unions to completely revamp the nation's standardized tests mandated under No Child Left Behind and then revamped with the new Common Core standards. Wyoming Public Radio’s congressional reporter, Matt Laslo, has the story on how the state’s congressional delegation is fighting for the state’s interests on the issue.

Teacher unions everywhere are mad. Educators say after 12 years of implementing standardized tests nationwide those tests are proving impediments to teachers - and if they don't get the reforms they’re demanding they say the president should oust his secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Wyoming senior Senator Mike Enzi serves on the education committee. Like most westerners, he doesn’t like east coast educators meddling in local education policy.

"Well, I don't know many people in Harvard or Yale that understand Wyoming, and that's where most of the people would be selected from, those are considered to be the founts of education, not the main stream schools of the United States."

Enzi’s committee is looking at how to both maintain a national standard while also freeing teachers from what many say are onerous requirements. There’s broad bipartisan support to reform the No Child Left Behind law - but the question is how?

"If you get it back to the states, states like Wyoming will concentrate on the kid," says Enzi. "States like New York will concentrate on the test."

But Enzi and his fellow Republicans have failed to reach a compromise with Democrats so a law that both parties don’t like anymore, remains on the books. Hence the Obama Administration introduced its new standard, Common Core. It attempts to set new benchmarks for schools and students. It’s voluntary because Congress never passed it. Enzi says that’s left the nation’s educational standards in disarray.

"When you have a President, that with the stroke of a pen is willing to do anything he wants to do, and it takes three years for the court to catch up with him, you've got what we've got right now. Which is a strange emphasis on education, national testing, common core...and it's a mess."

Connecticut Democratic Congressman Joe Courtney is also on the education committee. He says the administration is being forced to bypass Congress because lawmakers are neglecting their fundamental responsibility to either scrap or rewrite No Child Left Behind.

"I mean, we know the flaws that existed in the result – as a result of No Child Left Behind and we should take a new measure, which again, is about four or five years overdue. Give states more flexibility," says Courtney. "Try and set up programs that measure school success differently than the one-day, one-test model, which again, I think doesn’t really move the ball forward in terms of increasing proficiency."

But Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis doesn’t want federal lawmakers like herself meddling in local issues.

"The Wyoming State constitution provides that education policy is the province of the state of Wyoming and the United States Constitution is silent on education. So here we have a tenth amendment that says things that are not expressly assigned to the federal government through the constitution are the province of the states and the people."

Still, Lummis sees glaring problems at home, like that not a single student in the state took the advanced placement test for computer science.   

"There are indications nationally that Wyoming is underperforming, but it truly is not my province as the member of Congress to address that. That really is the responsibility of the people of Wyoming."

On the ground in Wyoming – Common Core is opposed by all Republicans running for State Superintendent and the Democratic candidate has expressed some concerns. Kathy Vetter is president of the Wyoming Education Association...a statewide teachers organization. She says the new Common Core regime is a mixed bag because it’s really just a set of minimum – though high – standards.

"So I don’t see the Common Core as bad because it sets some high standards for all students. Where it sometimes gets messed up is as it comes down, and we tie all of this testing to the different things that we’re doing," says Vetter. "So it’s really the implementation of it, taking the time to make sure that all of the education employees have the professional development so they understand the standards for their content area, their grade area, their grade level."

What Vetter doesn’t like is No Child Left Behind. She says it depletes resources while also demanding high standards.

"Well, I don’t see that high-stakes tests really have helped funding because the cost of tests are enormous. We keep spending more and more developing a different test and redoing our tests every couple years instead of putting it into textbooks or professional development or supplies for students or, in other states, buildings."

To Vetter, Washington lawmakers seem to just talk a good game.

"It’s very frustrating because you talk with them one-on-one, and they all agree, yes, it needs to be reauthorized; yes, there are things that are bad. But it doesn’t seem to move," says Vetter. "It is very frustrating because I do hear it from lawmakers across the country that say, yes, we need to get these – this changed but somehow we can’t seem to get moving on that change."

Lawmakers aren’t expected to touch the nation’s education policy ahead of November, so local educators are once again left waiting to see if Washington will throw them a lifeline or just another hurdle to try and jump.

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.
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