A public school westerner at Yale

Jan 30, 2013 By Robert H. Peck

The passage of SF104 will make it harder to defend our school system to the polo players back here named Maximillian and Wilberforce.

I'm a product of Fremont County School District 25, and I'm proud of it.

Though being a public school grad sometimes make me feel as much in the minority at Yale as my state residency does (there are only two Wyomingites among us), my 12 years of public education in Riverton -- from learning to spell "because" in Mrs. Ruby's first-grade Ashgrove classroom to struggling my way through stoichiometry under the watchful eye of Mr. Miller in high school -- have given me the tools I've needed to contend with the litany of prep-school polo players with names like Maximillian, Tapley and Wilberforce that I go toe-to-toe with in my classes every day.

And whenever one of my peers sees fit to take a cheap shot at my home state for its size or its politics, there's one argument I can count on to see me through: that my state's public education system is almost always better than theirs.

Well, that and the fact they they've never actually seen a cow.

But with the recent passage of legislation stripping State Superintendent Cindy Hill of every shred of power short of her own two feet, I may be keeping mum on this issue the next time it comes up out here in the East.

When Superintendent Hill was elected in 2010, the precedent she set was clear. Given the choice between electing an administrator or a teacher, Wyoming chose the latter. Not only have our citizens made sure that our schools are well-funded -- allowing Wyoming to attract teachers that other states would drool over -- but, with the 2010 election, they also mandated that those schools be overseen by someone whose priority was the classroom, not the boardroom.

Ask a teacher, and she'll tell you that Hill's election was one of the best things that had happened to her position in years. Just as you hire an accountant to manage your bills and a plumber to fix your sink, Wyomingites reasoned, you hire a teacher to oversee your schools.

It seems to have made sense to everyone but the 2013 Wyoming Legislature.

When their session began, these legislators made it their top priority to go over the voters' heads and oust this democratically-elected state official from all effective authority. They, each voted in by a single district (compared to Hill's statewide victory), acted through an apparent combination of malice and indifference. Those who supported the bill gave little concrete reason why. Most who did not support it simply said nothing.

In a matter of days, Cindy Hill went from holding constitutional authority comparable to that of the governor himself to sitting atop the state department of education as a figurehead -- superintendent in name alone, while a hired man and an unelected state school board take over the job voters elected her to do.

And all of this has been done without a single vote cast by the public that put Hill into power just two years ago. Did you want an elected educator to have a voice in your state government? Too bad.

One of the significant disappointments I have dealt with since I left Riverton for Yale in autumn 2011 has been the generally low opinion many of my peers seem to have regarding my home state. The fact that many of them are unable to show where Wyoming is on the map doesn't dissuade them from openly mocking both it and its residents: from relatively benign hillbilly jokes and population-density comparisons to the aggressive invocation of the crimes inflicted on the late Matthew Shepard nearly 15 years ago, I've heard it all since I came out East. On more than one occasion, my western heritage has ;been an issue, shall we say, on a campus populated primarily by Californians and New Yorkers.

There are a few things that always assure me they are wrong about us. But as of Tuesday, I fear our school system won't be one of them much longer.

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