Sen. Affie Ellis at her desk in the Wyoming Senate. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The Senate is advancing legislation to create an advisory committee loaded with business and industry representatives to study the state’s educational programming.

The committee would work parallel to lawmakers as the Legislature embarks on this year’s regularly scheduled review of what Wyoming’s public schools offer and the formula that determines the necessary level of funding. 

Proponents of the endeavor hope the committee of industry players and state officials will draft an alternative model for Wyoming’s K-12 public education for the Legislature’s consideration in 2021. Outside scrutiny of what schools offer students might break a deadlocked debate over whether the Legislature needs to cut education funding or find new ways to pay for it as energy revenues dwindle, proponents like State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow say.

Input from Wyoming’s key industries will be beneficial in crafting what a modern education in Wyoming should look like, Balow said.

The proposed “advisory committee” has raised the hackles of lobbyists for school boards and an educators’ union, however, who consider the group redundant and suspect a hidden agenda given the influence it could dispense to business interests over public education.

“There are some groups who have not adequately studied the work that’s already been done and who may want to push personal agendas in order to get outcomes that they may prefer,” Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said.

It’s also opposed by leaders in the House who worry it doles out power to business interests and unelected bureaucrats and strips it from elected lawmakers.

“It’s pretty uncommon to let lobbyists appoint a task force to work with elected officials,” Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) told reporters on Friday. When pressed, Harshman did not identify which lobbyists he meant and sought to walk the comment back, saying he didn’t know the effort’s origins.

Speaker of the House Steve Harshman at the speaker’s desk in the Capitol building. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The Wyoming Business Alliance, which represents a number of Wyoming business interests, has lobbied for the committee. A fresh look at the state’s education offerings is “essential,” said Cindy Delancey, the alliance’s president. “That’s what we’re supporting. It certainly is in the Business Alliance members’ interest.”

Lobbyists are far from the only interested parties. Balow is pushing the advisory committee, and Gov. Mark Gordon (R) backed the state’s top elected school official in his opening remarks to lawmakers.

The proposal has support in the Senate, which amended the legislation several times to increase the number of industry representatives on the task force. House leaders’ opposition may portend a showdown on the issue in the last week of the legislative session.

As passed by the Senate, the legislation calls for one representative each from the agriculture, energy, tourism, professional services and technology industries, as well as a representative from the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency.

Recalibrating recalibration?

The Legislation is an attachment to House Bill 40 – School finance – model recalibration. That bill is one that comes around every five years to kick off an examination of public school programming and costs by two committees — the Joint Education Committee and the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. The latter committee is specially created for the process. Both committees take testimony and hear public comment around the state. At the end of the process consultants provide lawmakers with a review of the existing model and a cost estimate. 

Recalibration will take place between the end of this legislative session and the start of 2021’s, provided HB-40 passes.

The advisory committee proposed by the Senate would come up with an alternative model for the consultants to also price out — giving lawmakers a second choice.

Both the House and Senate Education Committees rejected the creation of the advisory committee. But Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne), a Senate Education Committee member, successfully amended the bill on the Senate floor to include the committee.

Those supporting the idea argue the state’s education package for students — referred to as “the basket of goods” in the Legislature — has calcified despite a changing world. The Legislature hasn’t thoroughly examined what schools are providing students and instead just pays the education system’s billion-dollar tabs, the argument goes.

“I think a fresh look would be great as opposed to those who are already in the echo chamber,” Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) said during Senate debate on Friday.

Sen. Dave Kinskey

The Legislature last undertook its regularly scheduled recalibration in 2015. Then, as a debate over education funding ramped up, lawmakers conducted an early recalibration in 2017. Lawmakers — primarily senators — seeking cuts at the time hoped the study would find cost savings. Instead, consultants found the Legislature was underfunding education by around $70 million a year, given what it was asking the school system to do. Lawmakers rejected the study.

“That study examined what Wyoming does, what regional states do, and what high-performing states do,” Farmer with the school boards said in emailed comments to WyoFile. “We found that only small tweaks were needed to make the basket modern, relevant, and rigorous.”

But senators last week criticized those consultants’ work.

Other proponents of the advisory committee said it wasn’t about costs but quality. Bringing business people and outsiders into the education fold will spark fresh ideas, they argued.

“We’re in the 21st century. There may be different skill sets that are required for today’s workplace and tomorrow’s workplace and our basket may not necessarily reflect that,” Balow said in an interview last week.

“My hope is that we see new and different ways to create more innovation and more opportunities in our school system,” Balow said. “Is this a motivator for [education spending] reductions or for increases or for taxes? No.”

On the Senate floor, Kinskey took a jab at the quality of the state’s public education system when he called for increasing the number of business representatives on the advisory committee. “What I don’t see here are the businesses that hire people with a high school diploma that can’t read or do math,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) echoed Kinskey’s sentiments. “We ought to have more people that pay the taxes and hire the people out of high school,” he said. 

The Senate subsequently lessened the number of education community representatives and increased the number of industry representatives in the proposed committee. The initial draft provided for just one member of the business community on the committee.

The proposed committee had 12 members by the time the Senate passed the bill on Monday. The remaining six members would consist of a school district superintendent, community college trustee, a representative from the governor’s office, a member of the state board of education and Balow or her designee. The committee would also include a professional in “early childhood development or literacy.” Balow would appoint all the industry representatives and several of the non-industry representatives. 

Ellis argued the education community is opposing the committee entirely as opposed to seeking a seat at the table.

“For those that feel excluded if you want to come visit with other members, great,” she said on the Senate floor. “The message I got yesterday was ‘we don’t want [the advisory committee] at all,’ so what does that say about the level of involvement they’d have being on this committee?” 

Some in the Senate found the industry-heavy committee off-putting. It’s like saying “we want to improve heart surgery but we don’t want any heart doctors [involved],” said Sen. R.J. Kost (Powell), a retired educator and school administrator.

What direction for education? 

The state creates task forces to address issues all the time, proponents argue, including for other educational causes like the implementation of computer science standards ordered by the Legislature in 2018. The proponents suggested those opposing the idea were resisting scrutiny.

“I find it just baffling that we’re so scared to have people in our community and professionals to step up and help us,” Ellis said. When it comes to what taxpayers’ money is actually buying in the realm of education, “I’m tired of saying I don’t know, and we all should be,” she said. 

Balow, who has been the state superintendent since 2015, said she doesn’t have a specific direction in which she wants the state’s educational programming to evolve. A review could look at anything from school safety and security to new scholarships around social and emotional learning, Balow said. 

But business owners have a natural interest in education, Balow said. “It probably costs a lot less to skill kids upfront and partner with education to make sure that students graduate with the skills to be successful at the next level,” she said, “than it does to take someone and re-skill them.”

Better career and technical education benefits students too, Balow said. The state lacks skilled labor in a number of fields, she said, and at the same time, “we have a number of students that leave the state or don’t have jobs that promote prosperity or self-sufficiency necessarily in their community.” 

Balow called the current education system “good in a traditional sense.” 

“Are we still excelling by state and national standards?” she asked. “Yea, but is that the best we can do? I’m not convinced that it is and I think I share that sentiment with a lot of people across the state.” 

Educational needs in Wyoming vary given its large proportion of rural areas and its 48 school districts of vastly different sizes, Harshman said. He was critical of “appointing a task force with a pretty limited number and a pretty limited scope. There’s a lot of different people in this state in a lot of different situations,” he said. “It’s not a Cheyenne deal.”

In Cheyenne, however, legislators from across the state face increased pressure to make a change to public schooling. Proponents of the advisory committee argued they, too, were hearing from people concerned about education around the state.

Gordon raised funding worries during his opening address to lawmakers. 

“The valve on education funding is stuck open and will require further consideration by this body as to whether that plumbing will hold up over time,” he said. He then recommended lawmakers consider Balow’s idea for a review of the “basket of goods.” The basket was crafted “before Wyoming schools had access to the internet,” he said.

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The Wyoming Business Alliance also advocates for “modernizing” the state’s education system, and is quick to note that the state faces a significant education funding deficit that is burning through state savings and driving discussions of tax increases. 

Delancey, the alliance’s president, began a Casper Star-Tribune guest column with a nod toward fiscal woes. “At this pivotal moment for both our state’s finances and education system,” Delancey wrote, “the Wyoming Legislature should go beyond just ‘recalibrating’ the cost of our current education system and use this opportunity to modernize our education system.” 

Other business advocates are watching public education as well. The Cheyenne office of the law firm Holland & Hart, which lobbies for a wide swath of Wyoming industrial interests before the Legislature, flagged education funding in a memo to its clients before the session.

The 2020 Legislative preview, obtained by WyoFile and written by the firm’s chief lobbyists, noted education is fueling drive toward new taxes. While the state’s general government agencies have faced a number of cuts over the years, education has not, the preview read. 

Ellis is an attorney with the firm, according to her financial disclosure documents and the firm’s website.

The law firm is not lobbying on education issues, Matt Micheli, a partner at the firm and the former director of the Wyoming Republican Party, said. 

We are not contracted or lobbying on education funding in any way,” Micheli said. The preview is a tool used to advise clients on issues up for discussion in the state, he said. “People want to know what are the hot-button issues for the session,” Micheli said, and education funding is one of the biggest.

“The only group that has not been willing, or been forced, to come to the expenditure efficiency conversation is the education community,” the preview read. The document predicted frustrations similar to those expressed by Ellis and others on the Senate floor last week, after years of at times bitter debate over education funding.

“There does seem to be a growing amount of pushback on the ever increasing cost of education without any attempts by the education community to contribute to the budget shortfall solution,” the preview read. 

Opponents of the committee worry about too sharp a pivot toward computational skills and career and technical education — the type of schooling that interests many businesses. Comments from committee proponents have not assuaged their fears.

“All the circular talk just really affirms this is not a well thought out plan,” the school boards’ Farmer said. “It’s either not well thought out or it’s putting out some sort of agenda that’s not transparent.”. 

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. As an employer and business person work works with numerous employers in a wide variety of industries, business should have a seat at the table.. The economy needs people who are ready, willing and able to participate in the economy – reading, writing, arithmetic, problem solving skills, work ethic, people who can be successful, people who can fail and grow from the experience, citizens who can participate in the economy and running our democratic republic, Without those widgets, without the economy, not much of a democratic republic to run.

    I think Senator Ellis said it best: “I find it just baffling that we’re so scared to have people in our community and professionals to step up and help us,” The only people that seem to be scared to peel back the onion appear to be those in the education community – the community that feels exempt from having its use of resources challenged. If the system is so good – we spend more on education per student than 48 other states – why are our students ill prepared to participate in the economy? Why does the business community have to teach them how to write, perform basic math……..and take responsibility to show up on time. Without the input of the business community that answer will continue to elude the Education system. And maybe that lack of input is part of the problem.

  2. The public schools system’s priority should be on producing broadly educated, thinking citizens who can participate fully in running our democratic republic. It’s job is not producing wickets for the business community to plug in where necessary..