The Senate Thursday had the chance to put to rest the whole, ugly saga of the Legislature stopping the Wyoming Board of Education from considering controversial new science standards.
It just couldn’t do it.
The Senate voted 27-3 in favor of House Bill 23, which would erase the budget bill footnote lawmakers passed last year to keep the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) from being adopted.
Because the House also passed HB 23 on a 39-21 vote that would normally be the end of the issue for legislators, and the bill would be sent to the governor to decide if he wants to sign it into law.
But the Senate insisted on amending the bill to make it clear the board of education “may consider, discuss or modify the NGSS, in addition to any other standards, content or benchmarks as it may determine necessary to develop quality science standards that are unique to Wyoming.”
At numerous forums last summer, the incessant point made by NGSS opponents was that state standards should be “unique to Wyoming” and/or “reflect Wyoming’s values.”
The House killed the identical amendment to its version of HB 23, while the Senate passed it 16-12 on Thursday. If the House does not vote to concur with the Senate’s version, the issue would go to a conference committee to work out the differences.
Since the House already rejected those differences once, it’s likely to do so again, if only to see how married the Senate is to the idea that the standards need to be “unique to Wyoming.”
The differences in the two bills are not inconsequential. Passing the amendment led one of the co-sponsors, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), to vote against HB 23.
In passing the amendment, the Senate ignored the advice of its president, Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), who called it “absurd” to think that somehow science is unique in Wyoming.
“There’s nothing unique about the science that exists in Laramie or Cheyenne, or that the minute you drive across the border the science changes,” he said.
“In no way, shape or form are we saying (Wyoming’s) science is unique,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who sponsored the amendment. “… What we said was let’s talk about what’s unique to Wyoming and what we want to try to do with that.”
Bebout emphasized NGSS is still in the bill. “We’re not taking that away,” he said.
Rothfuss was in full-court-press mode to kill the amendment. He argued it wasn’t germane to the bill, but Nicholas ruled that it was. Then he said it was unconstitutional because it changed the intent of the bill.
“What we’re trying to do here is make amends for a bad piece of process whereby we tried to take and tie the hands of the State Board of Education, and we’re now trying to undo that,” Rothfuss explained. “If this tries to put further directions on the State Board of Education, then we’re just doing the same thing.”
Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock), sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said he views HB 23 as “sort of an eraser, to erase something that’s been couched as a mistake, and this is the correction.”
Anderson said initially he didn’t think the amendment harmed the bill, but later wondered, “Why do we even need this thing? We’ve erased this small mistake, let’s not insert a bunch more verbiage.”
Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) said with its permissive language, “I think it’s a good amendment and at worst it’s harmless.”
But Nicholas said while it uses the permissive language ‘may consider’ and ‘may determine,’ it still clearly mandates the state is to develop quality science standards that are unique to Wyoming. The president said nowhere in the legislation does it define what “quality science standards” are.
“I would submit to you that our role and what we’ve been trying to do is not develop quality science standards — we’re looking for a very rigorous set of standards to [obtain] a high level of performance,” Nicholas added.
Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) said the arguments against the amendment were in conflict with each other. “One is, we shouldn’t be telling the state board anything, and the other is, we should be more descriptive and tell the state board exactly what we want.”
“I think this is a good amendment because it gives flexibility to the state board to determine what is appropriate for Wyoming,” Meier said.
We’ll have to wait until next week to see if the House, which adjourned Thursday afternoon for the four-day Presidents Day holiday, agrees.