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Wyoming Legislature 2023: Education Committee Talks Funding and Third Grade Reading Scores

Charles Scott

2023 Education Committee
Committee Chairs (click to meet the committee):
Senate - Charles Scott
House - David Northrup

Senate committee members - Bo Biteman, Evie Brennan, Chris Rothfuss, Cheri Steinmetz
House committee members- Lane Allred, Ocean Andrew, Ryan Berger, Landon Brown, Ken Clouston, Martha Lawley, Jerry Obermueller, Karlee Provenza

The Education committee should benefit from having two chairs with substantial institutional knowledge in the education realm. Senator Charles Scott (photoed above) will bring his experience in the State Legislature (Scott came aboard the Wyoming Legislature in 1979), to chair the committee along with Rep. David Northrup, who is coming back to the Wyoming Legislature after a two-year hiatus. Northrup was the House Education Committee chair from 2015-2020. 

“A few years ago, President (Tom) Buchanan at the University of Wyoming said Wyoming should have the best public education system in the US, from kindergarten through graduate school,” Scott  says. “I think he was exactly right. We have the funding to do it, the people to do it, we just need to get it properly organized and motivated. That is the goal we are shooting at.”

Scott says the committee has focused on third grade reading scores over the past two years, as an increasingly large body of research suggests teaching children to read in grades one-through-three is the best time to teach reading. Scott says the committee is interested in making sure state block grant dollars are spent in the classroom and not in more administration.

“We are one of the best school systems in the country in terms of funding,” Scott says. “What we are showing when we look at it is those results don’t correlate with the funding school districts get. It seems the more administration you buy, the less quality you get. The administrators then make work for themselves that makes work for the classroom teacher that keeps  them from teaching.

School capital construction will also take up a significant amount of the committee’s time this session. Scott says the state used to fund the building and maintenance of schools through local bond issues. During the Campbell decisions of the 1990’s, that changed and put the funding onus on the state. Over the last 20 years Wyoming has spent more than $4 billion on school construction and major maintenance with nearly all of that money coming from coal lease bonus money, which no longer exists. 

“We need to do something different there,” says Scott. “We have two choices, either we take it out of the operating money, which I don’t think is a good idea. Or, we do a constitutional amendment and go back to the old bond issue system but equalize it. There was a reason the court came at it the way it did and the reason it did was that about 20% of the districts simply could not afford what they needed to do because they didn’t have minerals in their assessed evaluation. I think going to the equalized bond issue system will bring spending under control and find a way that capital construction doesn’t subtract from operating.”

Seemingly every year, the process for funding the state’s education system remains a hot-button issue and 2023 will be no different. The stakes were raised in August when the Wyoming Education Association sued the state in Laramie County District Court over school funding, claiming the state violated its constitutional duty to adequately fund public education. According to the suit the WEA, a membership organization of the state’s educators, felt increased class sizes, aging buildings, and insufficient school security measures were indicators of the state’s not holding its end of the funding bargain.

According to the State Constitution, Wyoming is obligated to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform” public education system under the state constitution. School districts filed lawsuits against the state in 1980 and 1995 challenging whether the state was providing that uniform education. 

Education funding as a whole seems in good shape this year due to the state’s severance taxes collections increasing on the backs of high energy prices. Though that hurts at the gas pump and when heating bills arrive, it has kept school funding strong. As of December 2022, one legislator told AARP Wyoming the Legislative Service Office budget updates suggest there will be no money needed from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (known as the rainy day fund) in either 2023-24 or 205-26 to fund K-12 education’s $1.6 billion price tag. The state will have about $158 million in excess for this year and around $300 million for the biennium in surplus education funds due to  higher than expected funds coming in from the extraction industries.

While K-12 has headlines, the bulk of the Education Committee’s sponsored bills from the interim actually deal with community colleges. In addition to funding K-12, the committee is sponsoring a bill to set up a trust for the Wyoming’s Tomorrow scholarship program in the neighborhood of $100 million. The program, which already exists in statute, would provide scholarships to nontraditional students looking to go to college after age 24, with up to $7,200 throughout four full-time terms. Other community college bills include a measure that would increase the school’s ability to approve capital construction, or renovations on their own campuses to anything less than $249,999. Another bill will offer an inflation adjustment to community colleges.

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