Refocusing resources, Mike Massie watches funding distribution
In addition to serving in the Wyoming State Legislature for 16 years, working on education issues, Democratic candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Massie says his most important qualification for the position is his first-hand experience with Wyoming’s schools as a parent.
Massie, who has represented Senate District 9, resides in Laramie and says he’s been involved in education for much of his life.
“I’ve been involved with the passage of many important pieces of educational legislation, including the Hathaway Scholarship program, and have served 10 years on the Education Committee in addition to 16 years on the Select Committee on School Facilities,” says Massie of his experience.
“The Legislature approaches education from a macro level, rather than as micromanagement and some of the issues the Legislature is working on right now include reviewing the educational funding model and ensuring funding distribution is equitable and that every student, regardless of where they live, has equal opportunity to quality education,” explains Massie.
Massie notes the primary concern of the Legislature is what constitutes quality, and how it can be improved.
“That influenced, to some degree, my decision to leave the Legislature and jump into this race,” he says. “Given my perceptions as a parent, and someone who works in the private education field, as well as my experience with the Legislature, I’m concerned about the direction of education in Wyoming.
“Education is becoming more directive from both the federal and state levels, and folks who don’t have much of an idea of what constitutes quality education in our communities are becoming more involved in dictating what we do in education. That’s troublesome.
“Instead, we need to refocus our efforts and resources back on the classroom. The key to a quality education in Wyoming is involved parents and well-educated teachers teaching the student in the classroom. It’s community-based education around the state of Wyoming, whether it’s happening in small rural one-room schoolhouses, or in our largest high school. The key is what’s occurring in those classrooms.”
Massie says his daughter started her education in a one-room schoolhouse in Atlantic City. “I’m familiar with how important those rural schools are, and how critical it is for the state to maintain those rural schools, especially elementary, regardless of where they occur,” he says, noting he’s also familiar with the state’s large schools from living in Laramie. “I think I have a good grasp on the importance of educational settings around the state of Wyoming.”
“I think one of the challenges for rural schools is being able to deliver a comprehensive curriculum, which is very important for students. Not only is it key to provide them the basic knowledge and skills they’ll need to go wherever in life they choose, but it’s important to provide students and parents with choices so students can follow their interests,” he explains. “It’s important to maintain even in smaller schools the ability for students to get the best instruction in math and reading, but also to have options with regard to science history, music and art.”
Massie says as students reach junior high and high school he thinks vocational education is important, as well. “That’s a real challenge in our rural schools,” he recognizes. ”Our ag programs are very important. If students have an interest in agriculture, especially if their family is involved in ag, we need to provide them the ability to pursue that interest.”
Massie draws attention to the fact that Wyoming currently pays the nation’s 15th best salary to teachers. “We now pay a good salary for teachers, and that means teachers are staying in place. Also, vacancies attract many applications from quality teachers from both here in Wyoming and from other states. The fact we’re paying teachers at that level benefits rural schools more than any others in Wyoming, and teachers are more encouraged to stay in Wyoming, and build up years of experience,” he says. “The key is for the student to graduate from high school and have the knowledge and skills – including problem solving, critical thinking and work ethic – to take them wherever in life they want to go. We empower that student, whether they live in Meeteetse or Cheyenne, to go wherever in life they choose.”
Massie says there’s not a shortage of teachers in the state, but there is a challenge to make sure a comprehensive curriculum is offered in all the schools, and to make sure there’s adequate funding getting to all districts to offer the courses, including access to distance education for high school students. “Those opportunities should be offered to students regardless of where they reside,” he says.
Regarding accountability in Wyoming’s educational system, Massie says he firmly believes every teacher and educator should be evaluated at least once every year. “I believe the large majority of our teachers are doing a fine job, and are dedicated and competent, but with the size of the school system in Wyoming’s it’s unrealistic to expect 100 percent,” he says, adding he would give teachers one year to improve, with support provided.
Of the current testing system, he says, “Another accountability approach is standardized testing, and the way we’re doing it now is terrible. PAWS is a flawed standardized test, and it needs to be replaced. It’s riddled with mistakes, takes up way too much classroom time and doesn’t tell us very much about student learning.”
In Massie’s opinion, Wyoming should develop its own statewide standardized test to ensure students are learning. “We should develop a test in Wyoming that makes sense to us,” he says. “I would turn to educators and parents in the state and ask them to be involved in determining how to replace PAWS, giving them criteria to meet, including an developing an instrument that will tell us something meaningful about student learning, doesn’t force teachers to teach from the test and doesn’t take up much classroom time.”
‘Balanced’ state lands
Of the Superintendent’s seat on the Board of Land Commissioners, which manages state trust lands, Massie says, “My approach would be the same I’ve taken in my 16 years in the Legislature, and that’s a balanced approach. I don’t believe we should have a policy that says we will or will not do anything on state lands. There’s also the requirement to get the maximum value from the land for benefit of schools, but my belief the definition of ‘maximum value’ also means being a good neighbor, and protecting the long-term value of those lands. It’s not just a matter of the bottom line, but there are other factors to take into account, and the long-term stability of our ranching community is important to me.”
“We’re already funding our K-12 education at one of the highest per student rates in the U.S. It’s not a matter of more money to get quality, it’s a matter of getting a bigger bang for the bucks we already invest. The Department of Education doesn’t need to be bigger, just better. Much better, by working with local school districts and providing whatever support and resources they need in the classroom.”
He emphasizes that a key component to quality education is the parents. “Parents are critical to a student’s future in education, and as State Superintendent I will make a case to parents to be more involved in their students’ education, and that’s the most difficult part of the education equation.”
“If we continue to dance to the tune from Washington, D.C., or even from Cheyenne, Wyoming, then education turns into a business of producing widgets and round students to fit into round holes. We force everybody to the middle, and that’s not education. We need to get a feel for what those students can do, challenge them and let them pursue their dreams from there,” says Massie.