The Wyoming GOP's Civil War over Education
The state's Tea Party-backed superintendent created an intraparty rift over schools. Now, she's taking the fight to the next level and trying to unseat the incumbent governor from her own party.
Wyoming is about as red a state as they come, with Republicans in charge of the legislature and every statewide elected office. But since the rise of the Tea Party four years ago, day-to-day governance -- even under one-party control -- hasn’t been smooth sailing.
One of the biggest intraparty rifts right now has to do with education -- specifically, the tumultuous tenure of state Superintendent Cindy Hill, a Tea Party favorite looking to unseat an incumbent governor from her own party.
Almost immediately upon taking office in 2011, Hill and her Republican colleagues in the legislature began butting heads. A former junior high school principal, Hill had campaigned for accountability systems that would be managed by local school districts. But a few months after her election, legislators preempted that by passing a law requiring statewide data collection and rankings-based student test scores from all 48 school districts. Hill decried the move as a power grab, though the law left local control in many areas, such as curriculum design, textbook choice and teacher evaluation.
Hill rankled legislators in her party by closing an office that focused on assessing student test scores. Over the next 10 months, her agency lost about a third of its staff -- former employees blamed a toxic work environment and office intimidation.
The Wyoming superintendent’s relatively limited authority has frustrated people in that office for 30 years, says state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, a Republican on a House committee that’s now investigating Hill on charges of mismanaging federal funds and other possible impeachable offenses. State Supreme Court decisions since the mid-1990s have clarified that the legislature sets policy and the board of education controls curriculum. The superintendent’s office “is not a policymaking position,” Zwonitzer says. “I don’t think she appreciates the management structure and what her role is.”
What’s more, state lawmakers tried to curtail the superintendent’s role even further: Citing concerns that Hill was intentionally refusing to implement the statewide accountability system, legislators last year passed a controversial law that turned the superintendent position into a political figurehead, handing over administrative duties to a gubernatorial appointee. But in January, the state Supreme Court deemed that law unconstitutional and restored her authority.
In reaction to the law, the state Republican Party Convention voted in May on whether to censure Gov. Matt Mead, a fellow Republican, for his role in attempting to limit Hill’s power. Mead avoided censure, but only narrowly, on a vote of 145 to 132.
Now Hill is running to unseat Mead. The race could determine the future of Common Core standards in Wyoming. The standards, which have spread to more than 40 states and the District of Columbia, provide learning objectives for students in English, math, language and art -- but not how they should be taught that information.
Though the standards were developed by governors and school officers around the country, Hill and other opponents have portrayed them as a federal takeover of public education. While Common Core has drawn some criticism from the left as well as the right, the backlash in Wyoming echoes concerns in other conservative states about federal overreach. “I don’t think it’s about the substance of the Common Core,” says Jim King, a political scientist at the University of Wyoming. “It reflects a common reaction in Wyoming of resisting some sort of influence from outside.” A similar push from far-right conservatives has prompted at least three other states with Republican governors -- Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina -- to drop the standards.
If Hill becomes governor, she would almost certainly push for sweeping education changes, including the repeal of Common Core. Hill would also have a bigger bully pulpit for rallying public opinion against the legislature’s statewide accountability system.
What little polling exists in Wyoming, however, suggests that she won’t be the next governor. In a survey of registered voters last year, voters preferred Mead to Hill by a margin of 54 points.