Wyoming lawmakers question fundamentals of education funding
Lawmakers alternatively poked and chafed Tuesday at the boundaries of Wyoming’s education system and the court decisions that protect it.
September 09, 2020
Lawmakers alternatively poked and chafed Tuesday at the boundaries of Wyoming’s education system and the court decisions that protect it as they look to solve a yawning revenue deficit and stay on the right side of the state’s Constitution.
Legislators are well into recalibration, the process by which state-hired consultants study Wyoming’s educational system. The process is used to decide what constitutes an adequate and equitable education for every student in Wyoming, and then determine how much the state must pay to meet that mark. The group of lawmakers who are tasked with running recalibration this year — it’s held every five years — spent several hours walking through consultants’ recommendations on staffing levels for teachers, tutors, librarians, nurses and counselors, among other parts of the funding model.
The process is a lengthy and, on its face, dry affair. But at the end of it is a model for how the state’s education system will look and the amount of money that system will require to function. It’s the second straight recalibration, after the 2017 effort, in which lawmakers find themselves facing a significant funding deficit amid a study of the state’s costliest budget item.
“We’re looking straight down the barrel of a $510 million educational deficit shortfall for ‘23-’24, and this is coupled with a $300 to $500 million biennium general fund shortfall,” Sen. Hank Coe, a longtime education-focused lawmaker and a member of the recalibration committee, said Tuesday morning. “What I would hope we would do is realize that we have to be responsible, and I would hope that we would make responsible reductions if we make reductions, which I would support, (and) end up with a model we can afford while still protecting teachers in the classroom.”
Some of the debate was familiar to followers of education funding debates in Wyoming. Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, noted that school districts don’t spend their money as the model tells them to; they often pay teachers more and have larger class sizes. He wondered if the consultants had considered making a model that was closer to reality.
While these experts did include some recommendations to more closely reflect what’s happening on the ground, the question about making the model more reflective of salaries and class sizes came up three years ago. In that case, the consultants told the state being more accurate to actual spending would cost tens of millions of dollars more. Lawmakers promptly dropped the idea.
But Tuesday’s debate took on a new shape that sought to parse parts of the court rulings that have shaped education here. Rather than pick apart specific pieces of the model, legislators questioned fundamental aspects of education and expressed frustration about how this process works. Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said earlier this summer that the debate within recalibration would likely be driven by debates around specific words in the previous court rulings.
The word that most came up Tuesday was “adequate.” The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled more than 20 years ago that the state had to provide an adequate and equitable education to every student. Indeed, the courts placed education funding above all other roles of the state, ruling that because “education is one of the state’s most important functions, lack of financial resources will not be an acceptable reason for failure to provide the best educational system. All other financial considerations must yield until education is funded.”