Legislators struggle with school funding
September 3, 2020
CASPER — 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.”
Hicks and fellow Republican Sen. Dave Kinskey both poked at what exactly constituted an “adequate” education: Was it just the core subject areas like math and reading? Or did it expand to electives, to the arts, to career and technical education? Was Wyoming’s education system, Sen. Eli Bebout asked, too focused on preparing college students and not focused enough on preparing a workforce?
Kinskey asked if, hypothetically, the state cut its educational offerings to just math, reading and writing, would that be adequate? Connolly, following that thought experiment, pushed for an answer too.
The question about adequacy is fundamental: If the state is providing an education system now that is more than adequate, then the Legislature could cut it and avoid running afoul of a lawsuit. If the consultants provide a model that’s significantly slimmer than the current one but is still adequate, all the better.
If lawmakers were hoping for favorable answers to those questions Tuesday, they didn’t get them. The consultants, Drs. Larry Picus and Allan Odden, tried to avoid questions about what exactly constituted “adequate,” sensing that those were questions perhaps best left to the state’s lawyers. But they did tell the legislators that their recommendations, which as of yet don’t have a dollar figure attached, did constitute an adequate education.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, asked the consultants point blank if their recommendations were not only adequate but as cost-effective as “adequacy” would allow.
“Yes, sir,” Picus replied. “We think this is what you need to have an adequate education. That was our task, and that’s what we built and developed.”
More fundamentally, the lawmakers asked who gets to decide what exactly is “adequate.” The meaning of the word could have significant impact on what gets funded and what doesn’t — is a full day of kindergarten adequate or more than adequate? Is it the Legislature’s mandate to set this bar, or is that the consultants’ job? Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, said the process felt “absurd” and said she had been repeatedly told that the lawmakers “have to” listen to the consultants.
So who’s in charge of actually deciding the content of the state’s education system?
“Good question,” Kinskey said dryly. He had said earlier in the day that he didn’t think it made “a dime’s difference” what the Legislature said it wanted students to learn; the model was the model, he said.
“Our firm is employed to give you our best estimate of what adequacy is and then it’s your decision as a Legislature to decide how to use that information to allocate resources,” Picus said. “At this point, I know you’ve been told you have to do what the consultants say and doing that is how you avoid going to court, how you avoid getting a court ruling that’s not favorable to the state. You’ve followed that advice from what I believe are some state lawyers.”