When it comes to funding Wyoming schools, I take things personally.
I’ve never been a teacher but I have much respect for the profession, particularly because I watched how dedicated my mother-in-law, Barbara Owens, was to teaching music in Cheyenne. She typically traveled to four or five schools a day, lugging instruments and lesson plans to classrooms that always seemed way too small for the number of students she taught.
Resources were scarce, including a shortage of instruments. Long after she retired, former students expressed their appreciation to Mrs. Owens, and said they wanted their children and grandchildren to have the same opportunity to learn about music.
School districts too often cut their budgets for music and other arts classes, though, because of shrinking funds from the state.
I also have a vested interest in education funding because I’ve spent countless hours, beginning in the late 1970s, listening to lawmakers wrangle over how much to spend on K-12 schools. The rhetoric rarely changed much, and neither did the predictable outcomes: When the Legislature fails to meet students’ needs, school districts and the Wyoming Education Association ask courts to intervene.
Lo and behold, it’s happened again.
The WEA recently sued the state for allegedly failing to adequately fund education. Following the case will be a significant part of my work for a long time. Nothing new there either: I’ve spent a lot of time in courtrooms listening to attorneys for the state and plaintiffs argue about the formula the Legislature and its consultants use to calculate the actual cost of education. Typically such litigation takes years to resolve, but the issue inevitably winds up back in the courts and the slow process starts over.
As they say, the only thing harder than learning from experience is … not learning from experience. More than four decades on and the Wyoming Legislature still insists on doing things the hard way. At least they’re consistent.
Of course, this didn’t have to happen again. Even a cursory examination of the issue shows two facts: 1) The state will keep getting sued for not meeting its constitutional mandate to properly fund education, and 2) it will keep losing those expensive and time-consuming lawsuits until the Legislature finally accepts that Wyoming Supreme Court decisions are the law, not just a suggestions that political idealogs are free to ignore.
The WEA’s lawsuit was born out of frustration, after years of watching the Legislature fail to establish a permanent, sustainable source of revenue for school districts. This wasn’t a rush to sue by the organization that represents most of the state’s teachers. If anything, WEA’s response to being repeatedly rebuffed by the Legislature was restrained.
Because the quality of Wyoming education is beginning to suffer, WEA President Grady Hutcherson said, the association was compelled to act. He cited increased class sizes, aging buildings and the need to improve school security.
Wyoming teacher salaries were once among the highest in the nation, but those days are gone. The state has not kept up with inflation in their block grants to districts for more than a decade. Salaries have stagnated, making it difficult for districts to recruit and retain teachers, especially in rural areas.
Gov. Mark Gordon’s lackluster response to the lawsuit was predictable. He said the timing was “unfortunate,” because he has an advisory group — Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education — that’s already working to find out what people want their schools to offer. He added that he hopes the lawsuit doesn’t “distract” RIDE members from doing their job.
“While the governor recognizes that a thorough examination of our K-12 funding system may be necessary,” his office said in a statement, “he would prefer to work on that outside of the courts.”
I’ll bet he would! Me too. I’m sure the RIDE folks are sincere in their efforts to improve education, and their work should continue.
But it’s completely disingenuous to say “a thorough examination” of school funding “may be necessary.” It’s been necessary for decades!
In a series of four lawsuits against the state by the WEA and school districts, the Wyoming Supreme Court has affirmed the Legislature must provide a high-quality, fair and equitable education system for every student. No exceptions.
The high court ordered an exhaustive process called “recalibration” to be conducted every five years, to adjust the funding formula based on current costs.
When the state government benefited from higher mineral severance tax revenue during booms, the Legislature would sometimes exceed what their consultants recommended. But whenever the fossil fuels industry struggles, lawmakers look for ways to reduce education spending.
In 2017, the Legislature ordered a special recalibration, with Senate deficit hawks admitting they wanted to use the process to justify deeper education cuts. Many senators complained Wyoming wasn’t getting the “bang for the buck” it should have, compared to the money it spends. These complaints ignored the fact that the Equality State’s standardized test scores were ranked the highest in Western states.
Much to these legislators’ chagrin, their recalibration consultant said Wyoming needed to increase K-12 spending by $70 million annually. At the Senate leadership’s insistence, school funding was cut a total of $100 million over the next three years. The decrease would have been much greater if the House didn’t force the Senate to compromise.
Then during the 2020 recalibration experts called for a $100 million hike — essentially restoring what was cut. But the Senate — pointing to dwindling fossil fuel industry revenue — wanted to shave off at least $100 million more. Rather than legislating new revenue sources, for several years lawmakers have used the “rainy day fund” to pay for a large portion of school funding. In 2020, the House only agreed to cuts if a half-cent state sales tax hike would be automatic if the fund dropped below $650 million.
The Senate flatly refused any sales tax increase for schools, and the House wouldn’t budge. Lawmakers eventually used federal COVID relief funds to maintain the existing budget, sparing it the $100 million cut but not changing the state’s tax structure, or providing the funding that the court-mandated consultants deemed necessary.
Now, with extra federal funds drawing down, the Legislature still doesn’t have a plan to fix an estimated $300 million annual education shortfall.
In its lawsuit, WEA reminds lawmakers that lack of revenue is not an excuse the courts will accept. The state Supreme Court has also spelled out in previous rulings that it doesn’t matter that other state agency budgets have been cut significantly:
“Supporting an opportunity for a complete, proper, quality education is the Legislature’s paramount priority (emphasis added); competing priorities not of constitutional magnitude are secondary, and the Legislature may not yield to them until constitutionally sufficient provision is made for elementary and secondary education.”
Wyoming, with a Permanent Mineral Trust Fund worth more than $9 billion, is hardly a poor state. It has the resources to pay for a school system that meets the mandate.Those resources are simply being diverted elsewhere, like the rainy day fund and assorted permanent trusts. If rerouting existing revenues doesn’t do the trick alone, the Legislature has an obligation to raise current taxes or establish new ones.
“The Wyoming Education Association is committed to seeking justice for our students,” Hutcherson said.
Sen. Chris Rothfus (D-Laramie) told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that the Legislature “lacks the political will … to do the right thing, because they know they won’t [be re-elected] if they vote to raise taxes.”
State polls consistently show residents don’t want education budget cuts. Yet, as Rothfuss noted after the recent primary election, they keep electing extremist, anti-tax and anti-education legislators.
This is why the WEA needed to sue the state. I hope many school districts join as plaintiffs, to again show state officials they can’t get away with underfunding education and thumbing their nose at the courts.