Wyoming will elect a new Superintendent of Public Instruction next month. Wyoming Public Radio's Taylar Stagner talked with Republican candidate Megan Degenfelder about teacher shortages, transparency, and the future of education.
Taylar Stagner: The Wyoming Education Association is suing over school funding saying districts are underfunded. They say many buildings are inadequate, and teachers are leaving the state. What are your thoughts about this?
Megan Degenfelder: This will be interesting to see play out. Of course, funding is a responsibility of the legislative branch. And so regarding the external cost adjustment, how that fits in whether or not we've been funding over the model.
I think this will be an interesting discussion, and I'm anxious to hear how that plays out. The role of the superintendent…it's extremely important that they look for efficiencies in education in any way that we can create those. And that's exactly what I plan to do at the Department of Education.
TS: Staying on funding, fully funded early childhood education has been difficult to fund over the past few years. Can you make a case for it?
MD: Early education, of course, is part of the pipeline, just as is higher education and those career pathways that we talk about post-graduation. I've been working a lot with the Child Development Center (CDC) leaders across the state about ways that we can improve that relationship, and work more closely with the Department of Education. And so I have some ideas of how we can make that more efficient across our state agencies, and be sure that we're taking care of even our earliest learners.
TS: Can you tell me some of those ideas?
MD: Sure. So there are a lot of ways that we can look to create efficiencies within departments. We have Early Childhood that spreads across the Department of Health, the Department of Education. So how can we streamline that into potentially one agency and have potentially a director of Early Childhood?
Of course, a lot depends on work with the legislature and how we have funding for this, but really trying to streamline that, make sure that our CDC are funded more accurately. They are not funded in the same way, per ADM (Average Daily Membership) on a three year rolling average, as our school districts are. So some of those are a bit in the weeds, but I think are really important to make sure that we have success within our early child care and early childhood education programs.
TS: How will you address legislators who think that a local control issue is something the state should either be requiring or funding?
MD: I'm a huge proponent of local control. All of our communities across the state are so different. And growing up here, I've experienced that and then even more so traveling to every corner of the state this summer. What works in Cheyenne is not going to necessarily work in Meeteetse. And we want to make sure that those local communities are making those decisions.
That's the best way that the government works, at the most local level. And so ways that we can partner and I see the State Department, the State Superintendent, as really being the person that bridges the gap between all of these education stakeholders at the state and at the local level. So however we can support those local districts and make sure that our first choice is decision making right there in those communities, that's the better option.
TS: There's been a lot of discussion about adding more job skills training into curriculums. What are your thoughts on this, and any worry that would take away preparing kids for, say, college?
MD: One of my key platforms in this campaign has been partnership with industry. At the end of the day, our number one goal is to make sure that kids are prepared for what's next, whether that be a career, whether that be college or a four year degree. We want to make sure that they're prepared and that they can get high paying jobs, ideally, right here in Wyoming.
So the more pathways and options they can explore and have access to in high school, the better. And so my goal would always be that a student who can graduate with a diploma can go on to a four year degree but also has access to that certificate so that they have that in their back pocket no matter what their next step ends up being. And so I think that it's critical that we have that access, and that our students know what jobs are out there, particularly here in Wyoming. And we're giving them the training opportunities before they even leave those high school buildings.
TS: A little bit about the Hathaway scholarship. The governor and some legislators have expressed interest in making changes to the Hathaway scholarships. Are there any tweaks that you see are needed in that program? What are your thoughts on the Hathaway program?
MD: I think that's somewhere where we can always look to improve. I think, in everything in education, including our scholarships, we have to be nimble and react to the needs of our industry and what those changing desires are for jobs, for kids, because that was the point of the Hathaway scholarship was to support kids in that next step.
And so the more we can do to make sure that that's expanded… the Wyoming Tomorrows, I believe it was a great initiative. There's a lot of those students, those non-traditional students, that are already here in Wyoming, they're going to stay in Wyoming. They're just looking for that further training. And looking at ways that that happened. Scholarship can continue to be applied to those certificate programs at those community colleges, which they can but making sure that students are aware of that and again, that our Hathaway requirements meet the needs of what those options could be. We've made some changes to make sure that career technical education is included as a requirement. And so I think as long as we continue to adapt in those ways, we're going to be successful with the Hathaway scholarship.
TS: And the State Department of Education says there's a shortage of about 700 teachers in the state and especially in rural areas. Teachers say they're overwhelmed. What's the solution to this? And is technology a piece of this puzzle? What are your thoughts on the teacher shortage?
MD: So the teacher shortage, there's never going to be one perfect solution for this, as much as politicians would like that to be the case. It's just simply not. And so we have to look at this from all angles. And I think that starts with recruitment and retention and separating those two. When it comes to retention, we know that incentives work over the years when Wyoming has been very competitive with teacher salaries. Those incentives are important to keep our great teachers here. We also need to make sure that [in] our communities, we're highlighting those teachers as the professionals that they are, get back to honoring teachers and their careers. And then also making sure that we provide support to them.
The University of Wyoming is looking at ways that they can support teachers after they've graduated from the College of Education the first few years. Or some districts have looked at having mentors for those new teachers - making sure that they're supported with that professional development, and that we're having that dialogue to make sure that we're providing them what they need, and making changes where appropriate to those institutions of higher learning where they're coming out of.
When it comes to recruitment, we've got to work heavily with the university as well to make sure that we're recruiting teachers to the program at the university. This exists both within our traditional teaching certificates, and also that of career technical education. We've really got to work together to make sure that we're getting teachers here to our program and placed in our local communities.
TS: Are you satisfied with the educational requirements in the state? And are there any changes that you'd make? And why would you make them?
MD: So it's really important to me that our education system becomes more nimble. We still see this gap between industry and what the workforce needs are for students, and what our education system provides. And we find that the education system of the government often lags the needs of an ever changing society and workforce. And so that's one of the reasons why I decided to run for this position, having spent many years in the private sector and realizing that we'd have to have that partnership stronger. We have to make sure that we're being nimble. We're making sure that our kids are aware of their career opportunities and how they fit with our economy in Wyoming.
TS: Is there anything else that you'd like to say to somebody listening, kind of on the fence between you and Sergio? [Sergio Maldonado is the Democrat candidate for state superintendent]
MD: I think another important role of the state superintendent that not many people are aware of, is the role on the State Land Board and the State Loan and Investment Board. That position with the other four statewide elected officials oversees development on about 4.2 million acres of state land and oversees the investment portfolio policy for over $25 billion, which interest in earnings alone off of that fund are the second largest contributor to our state's general fund.
So between the development on the state lands, as well as our investments, that money directly impacts our school funding, and it is critical that we have elected officials that understand land development, that understand investment policy, and that can be effective on those boards.
I think further for me, one focus area of mine in this campaign is to really work to empower parents to bridge that gap between our education system and our community. And I believe that transparency is a key way of doing this. I have a lot of exciting ideas of how we execute that. I'd really like to look at a statewide education transparency website, similar to what was done for the budget transparency. A place where all teachers, parents, community members can access information, access great things that are happening in the districts across the state, have access to our list of books and materials and be able to really interact with the superintendent as well as the State Department, really bridging that gap and communication. And so I'm really excited for ways that we can do that and really bring the state together when it comes to education.
TS: A question about the database. Do you think that there would be a potential for that to deter teachers from staying in the state? Is there, like, any repercussions to that, that you perceive if you get elected. I'm just curious about your thoughts in context of that and the teacher shortage?
MD: Yeah, no, actually, I think this is a really exciting thing for teachers because I think this push for transparency is growing. And I think the last thing we want to do is put an increased burden on the backs of teachers. And so whatever we can do at the statewide level to increase transparency without taking away from the time of teachers is exactly what we want to be doing. And so I look at this as an opportunity to highlight those great things, highlight those great materials, and make sure that we're providing that information on the backs of the State Department, not teachers.