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Education reform bill clears Legislature

Mar 9, 2012 By Bob Moen, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- It came down to the final day and an unusual closed-door meeting by the entire House of Representatives, but the Legislature approved an education overhaul bill continuing Wyoming's effort to help better prepare its public school students.

Senate File 57, which now goes to Gov. Matt Mead for his approval, was one of the last bills acted on by the Legislature before it adjourned Thursday evening.

The overall proposal starts to establish the nuts and bolts of an education overhaul process initiated by the 2011 Legislature. Lawmakers say the effort probably will require additional work by the Legislature next year.

"Everything we're doing here is a work in progress," said Sen. Hank Coe, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill won Senate approval on a 27-3 vote, and then passed the House 38-18.

However, the overwhelming majorities belied what Coe, R-Cody, described as an "alley fight" over differences between the versions of the bill that came out of both chambers earlier in the session.

A conference committee made up of members from each chamber haggled into Wednesday evening over the measure before coming back Thursday morning and settling on a compromise version.

After the Senate approved the compromise measure, the entire House took the unusual step of meeting behind closed doors in a large Capitol committee hearing room outside its chamber to discuss the revised bill before approving it on the floor without debate. The Legislature is exempt from the state open meetings law.

House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington, described the meeting as a "somewhat unusual" joint caucus by Republicans and Democrats to discuss the conference committee report on the education bill. Normally, the two parties hold separate caucuses during the session.

"The decision, I guess, collectively was made -- 'hey, let's get us all in one place and have it explained exactly what went on in the conference committee in a concise, quick format so that everyone will be on the same page so that they can make a decision based on facts and all the information,'" Buchanan said.

Shortly after representatives emerged from the private gathering they approved the bill without debate. Earlier in the Senate, senators openly discussed the conference committee report before approving it and the bill.

The bill details the tests Wyoming students will be taking through high school. It sets up a process for measuring the academic progress of students in reading, math, science, writing and language over their school careers, and for evaluating whether the students are meeting academic expectations and are ready for college and careers after high school.

The legislation creates a committee made up of educators, school administrators, parents and others to decide what standards schools must meet to be evaluated on whether they are doing a good job of educating students.

Schools will be ranked on such things as student scores on annual statewide assessments and college entrance exams and on graduation rates. Superintendents and principals would be held accountable for school performance.

The state Education Department would intervene to help individual schools that fail to meet performance standards. If a school fails to show improvement for two consecutive years, the principal may be dismissed.

The conference committee resolved differences over how much testing for academic assessment purposes should be done in kindergarten through second grade and how often, whether high school seniors must be tested for academic growth, whether some schools should be exempt from a mandated 16-1 student-teacher ratio and whether schools must report to the state the progress their ninth-graders are making toward graduation.

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