The Legislature’s Education Committee is considering funding accounts that qualified parents could use for alternative education like homeschool. (MissMessie/FlickrCC)

A measure to create “education savings accounts” using state funds for parents to pay for costs associated with their children’s preschool education or non-public-school expenses is headed to the legislative session, despite concerns it may not be constitutional. 

The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee advanced the bill on Wednesday. Under the measure, Wyoming parents whose household income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level — for a family of four, that equates to $75,000 annually — would be eligible for up to $5,000  a year for a child’s qualifying expenses. The money can be spent on things like tuition, tutoring, after-school-program fees and travel expenses. 

Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), who is not a member of the committee, brought the legislation. He calls it a compromise for those clamoring for more early childhood funding and those who want to support parental choice for options like private school or homeschooling.

“In my opinion, what makes this bill really good is the fact that we bring in early childhood,” Sommers told the committee. 

Identifying policy options to improve early childhood education was the committee’s No. 2 priority for the legislative off-season, known as the interim. School choice was the No. 6 priority.


As the parental choice movement gains steam in conservative political circles, the bill represents what may be a more palatable version of twin education bills that failed in the 2023 session. Senate File 143 – Wyoming freedom scholarship act-2, sponsored by Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), and a similar House version would have given families $6,000 per student to go toward tuition at any non-governmental school or for related educational expenses.

That would have marked a major shift in Wyoming’s school funding model by redirecting federal mineral royalties from the School Foundation Program Account, which funds the state’s public schools, to a new education savings account fund for families choosing to opt out of public school. 

Sommers’ bill would use $40 million from the general fund to create the account, as opposed to financing the program with School Foundation Program Account dollars. 

Under the bill, ESA students must be disenrolled from public schools, but are still subject to statewide assessments or a nationally equivalent test. The students must learn reading, writing, math, civics, history, literature and science. The money would be given out on a first-come, first-served basis, with the lion’s share, 70%, set aside for K-12 students.  

Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction would be tasked with considering applications and administering the program, as well as investigating reports of misuse of ESA funds.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder testified for a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Education & the Workforce on Oct. 19, 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of U.S. House subcommittee stream)

The current schools chief, Megan Degenfelder, supports the bill, her Chief of Staff Dickey Shanor told the committee. “She generally has the philosophy that increasing options and choice in education results in better outcomes for students, and that’s really what we aspire to accomplish with any policies,” he said.  

Detractors and supporters

The Wyoming Education Association, which advocates for the state’s teachers, does support school choice, but Government Relations Director Tate Mullen warned that his group’s “independent analysis determines that there’s no defensible argument that could be made to support the claim that the bill is consistent with the provisions of our state constitution.”

Specifically, he pointed to the use of public dollars to pay for private education.

The design of the bill, Mullen said, “is to establish another taxpayer-funded welfare program to provide education services to low-income families as a necessary support of the poor.” But families already have free access to public education, he said. 

“The intent of our state’s founding fathers are abundantly clear, given the numerous and explicit provisions within our constitution prohibiting taxpayer dollars flowing to private and parochial institutions,” Mullen said. He also noted concerns regarding fraud, misuse of funds and accountability.

Constitutionality concerns have prompted lawsuits from the group in the past. The Wyoming Education Association in 2022 sued the state, claiming it violated its constitutional duty to adequately fund public education. That case has yet to be tried in court. 

(Disclosure: Mullen is the brother of WyoFile reporter Maggie Mullen. She did not report on or write this story.)

Supporters of the bill, including several private school representatives, also testified. Melissa Whelan, principal at St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School in Casper, said empowering parents to make choices about their children’s education benefits many aspects of society. 

“I would just encourage that the committee consider allowing every child to have a choice, whether they choose our school, they choose homeschool, they choose another private school that can provide their child with the education that they need in terms of their special needs,” Whelan said. 

The account would enable more families to send their children to her school, where tuition starts at about $5,000, she said.  

Casper mom Courtney Ladenburger’s children had good experiences at private Catholic school. “Although my husband and I made sacrifices to provide a private education for our children, there are so many others that can’t make those first steps through the door of a school due to financial constraints,” she said. “Why should not all Wyoming families have a choice?”  

Changes and attempts

Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) attempted to pass an amendment that would have essentially replaced the measure with a bill that failed to pass the session last year. “This is the real school choice bill,” he said. His version stripped out the pre-K component, did away with income qualifications and restored religious-freedom language and homeschool considerations, he said. 

The committee did not pass it.

Gutting early childhood education, for one thing, would not likely be palatable to constituents, Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) said. “​​Because I think a lot of people desperately need this.”

Students, parents and staff gathered in the playground at Verda James Elementary School in Casper for the first day of school on Sept. 1, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Several amendments did pass, however, including one from Rep. Martha Lawley (R-Worland) tweaking the model so that 70% of ESA funds go to K-12 students and 30% go to early childhood education. 

Provenza voted against it, noting there are “fewer things [with] greater payback for what we put into early childhood education in terms of what we spend in other government funding.”

The committee also bumped the fiscal allotment from $3,000 to $5,000 per child.

During the two-day Cheyenne meeting, the committee’s final scheduled gathering before the upcoming session, members also advanced Parental rights in education-1, a bill setting out requirements for school districts to provide parents notice of information regarding students. In August, lawmakers removed controversial language from that bill regarding so-called “don’t say gay” stipulations. 

Committee-sponsored bills are much more likely to become law than bills sponsored by individual legislators.

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. The Wyoming constitution has a Blaine Amendment; as do 37 other states. It’s a 19th century, anti-Catholic quirk that the Protestants cooked up. On the national level, it was defeated. After 150+ years, such legislation is definitely in need of a re-think. Give the money to the parents who will make the best choice for their children.

  2. Parents already have the right to choose public, private or home education for their children. Since every child is guaranteed an education, funded with public funds, thru public schools, any alternative, in my estimation, should be funded privately.
    As Courtney Ladenburger stated, they made sacrifices in order to send their children to a private institution, that was their choice and they accepted the responsibility to do so. We need to stop giving people public money for things that they should be responsible for. This just smacks of another kind of loan forgiveness program, only in this case, you don’t even have the obligation of the initial loan. Free money is never free, except to the person receiving it.

  3. Methinks Bo’s amendment to the current draft, and Cheri’s efforts in the 2023 session, more clearly express the intent of the Joint Education Committee. The difference? Charlie and Dave, as wiser older dogs, took lessons in legislative camouflage.

  4. So sad that is how we lose out democracy by siphoning public funds to go to religions. We already lose funds to these institutions because they don’t pay taxes and now they get tax dollars to study the Bible. Lander is a great example as the Catholic College is buying our downtown and we are losing our tax base.

  5. This bill violates Article 7 of the Wyoming Constitution. Further, it diverts money intended for public eduction to be used for private schooling and the impact on Wyoming’s public education would be considerable. Public education is under attack from the right and this bill is just another attempt in this regard.

  6. The new age gullible ol’ party has pissed on the constitution for years. Why would they care if public funding for religious schools is unconstitutional?