The Legislature’s Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration rarely makes headlines. Its meetings are lengthy, the subject matter is complex and tangible results are slow-developing. The vast majority of time during early committee meetings is spent listening to expert presentations.
Yet, public-school-finance policy impacts every community in the state and we overlook its crafting at our peril. This year of vastly shrinking state revenues it holds added significance with potential changes to the funding model itself.
Past state Supreme Court decisions ordered closer adherence to the constitutional guarantee of a complete and uniform system of public education.
While court findings concluded that public education is a fundamental right guaranteed in the Wyoming State Constitution, they also left room for the state Legislature to determine what qualifies as an adequate education. Lawmakers can’t just define an adequate public education from thin air though — it must be built on evidence-based criteria. To accomplish this, the state hires education experts to perform an assessment every five years. This is the recalibration process and it’s happening now.
The committee is currently considering the results of these expert assessments. The majority were delivered during the committee’s most recent meeting in late October. Committee members were no doubt in much suspense awaiting these results.
The overall tone of these presentations, given by several education consultants, had to come as a relief to the committee. That’s because there were no new costly surprises introduced into the existing model. Actually, experts suggested several areas that costs could be significantly reduced.
Examples include wage and salary levels and regional cost adjustments. A reexamination of how the Wyoming funding model formulates these two issues could save a lot of money.
Experts conclude that teacher salaries in Wyoming are significantly higher than the evidence-based model. Wyoming teachers are also paid considerably larger salaries than those in neighboring states. However, the difference has been falling in recent years. Yet today the ratio of teacher salaries to professional and technical occupations in Wyoming is considerably higher than is found in other states — only four states in the nation have higher ratios.
Non-teaching professional salaries vary compared to neighboring states; central administrators are paid more in Wyoming than comparable states, but elementary and higher school administrators are paid less. Other professional and classified staff are paid at levels close to the outside market.
Dr. Lori L. Taylor, a consultant charged with analyzing the regional cost adjustment component of the model, also produced strong evidence that Wyoming needs to change several aspects of its model to create more equity and save money.
The most important recommendation is that the model needs to include only one index for the entire set of school districts. This tool measures the relative costs of living among regions of the state as well as other factors.
When funding was plentiful, legislators provided two or three different indexes for districts to choose among. This has allowed districts to opt for the index that provided them the highest benefit. This defeats the purpose of an index providing cost of living information at a specific point in time.
Another finding the consultant highlighted is that the actual purpose of a regional index is to identify the factors that cause differences in the difficulty in hiring workers from one district to another. A more robust index such as an updated Hedonic index for all districts would bring about hiring-effort equity from district to district in Wyoming.
All of these past practices translate into unnecessary added costs that the funding model could absorb in better economic times. In today’s fiscal environment, however, they are particularly damaging to equity among districts. Correcting these issues would save millions of dollars to the state’s education program.
Meeting participants also discussed other potential options. For example, a simple change in the model to reimburse districts for actual health insurance expenses for employees appears able to save about $67 million each year.
The big takeaway from studying the findings of these educational experts is that if they are followed, the costs of education in Wyoming could be reduced substantially.
The remaining question is whether the committee will come to a consensus on these issues. There was a noted lack of consensus among the members late in the October meeting. There were numerous 6-5 votes on a number of motions concerning many of the issues. The votes did not align exactly with legislative-chamber membership, but there was considerable correlation, suggesting the years-long House vs. Senate divide over education funding persists.
The final recalibration document will be voted on during its last scheduled meeting, scheduled for Dec. 17-18.
A review of voting history on education issues clearly reveals that the House members on the committee have proven significantly more receptive to school funding issues than their Senate counterparts.
In fact, in 2017 many senators who are now on the recalibration committee either sponsored or co-sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 9, which would have increased the Legislature’s ability to determine an adequate education, and its cost, without oversight from the justice system.
It appears that in the short run, if the recalibration committee adopts the basic recommendations of its consultants, the new legislative model can decrease costs and still meet the evidence- based adequacy test.
Of course, after recalibration is complete, the big challenge of finding an appropriate funding source for public education remains. The numbers appear to indicate that, in the current biennium, funding is achievable with only a minimum contribution from rainy-day funds. However, with the expected drop in the demand for oil, natural gas and coal the state of Wyoming will be left with stranded assets that will no longer be able to produce necessary revenue to fund public school education.
Wyoming must ultimately move to more stable education-funding sources that have proven viable in most other states. There is little time to act before the state exhausts its funding under the current revenue structure.