Amidst declining revenues, Wyoming lawmakers face tough school funding choices where student-teacher ratios are a critical part of the fiscal balance.
The Legislature’s recalibration process is a complex undertaking that involves a lot of math along with jargon such as “funding model,” “basket of goods,” and “revenue guarantee.” But at the core of the discussion, the Legislature aims to answer two simple questions: How much is Wyoming willing to spend on education, and how should the funds be split among school districts?
The answers will affect nearly 90,000 students in all 48 school districts in Wyoming along with hundreds of educators. For example, a shift to larger class sizes — one topic under discussion — could change the quality of education for students and result in widespread layoffs.
Such critical outcomes are in the balance as the state weighs the cost of educating its children against declining mineral revenues and a cash-strapped budget.
How does Wyoming fund its schools?
Wyoming has a redistributive school funding formula that aims to smooth out property tax revenues among rich and poor school districts across the state. This evolved out of a series of four Wyoming Supreme Court decisions relating to mineral-rich Campbell County School District, known as Campbell I, II, III, and IV, and the fact that many regions of Wyoming do not have large sources of revenue.
The formula uses the number of students in each district, local tax revenue, and other factors, to calculate funding for each district. (If you’re curious what this looks like, check out the Excel spreadsheet labeled “2b” here.)
The school funding calculation is described on a dollars-per-student, or “adjusted daily membership” basis, ranging from about $13,000 per student in the urban districts in Cheyenne and Casper to more than $35,000 per student in Sheridan County School District No. 3 in Clearmont, population 142.
The small rural districts are the most expensive because they lack economy of scale, but the Supreme Court decisions require that students receive the same basic educational services no matter where they live. Equal education in the Equality State, so to speak.
So, what is “school recalibration?”
The costs for providing education change with inflation, labor markets and other factors. State law requires the Legislature to adjust or “recalibrate” the funding formula every five years to keep up with actual costs.
During the 2015 session, the Legislature established the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration to handle these tasks. It’s a big enough job that the committee has already met five times since May, and they will finish their interim deliberations Nov. 16-17 in Casper. (Most interim committees meet only three or four times between sessions.)
Lawmakers are examining every aspect of educational costs, from computers to transportation, from school lunch to teacher and administrator salaries. Just the index of reports for all these different areas runs more than a page for each meeting.
Sounds complicated. So, what’s the most important part?
Of all the different parts of the state’s school funding formula, class size is the most important driver of cost, according to the Legislative Service Office.
“Personnel are costly, professional personnel are the most costly, and class size determines how many professional employees are necessary,” the LSO report states.
Class size is one of the most important factors for student learning, said Kathy Vetter of the Wyoming Education Association (WEA). According to Wyoming’s funding model, elementary classrooms can have no more than 16 students, while high school classrooms can be as large as 21 students.
“With our current class size, it allows the student to get more one-on-one time with their teacher, and that is why we are very much in favor of keeping that quality education,” Vetter said. “We are really concerned about students learning and ensuring that students have a quality education.”
If lawmakers increased class size limits, it could save Wyoming a lot of money. But about 500 to 700 teachers would be out of a job, according to Vetter. Wyoming has not increased class size in recent years, but instead has whittled them down for the sake of quality. Smaller classes, and the resulting better performance, have been the main goal of increased spending on education since 2004, according to LSO.
The WEA advocates against changing this course of smaller classrooms. Increasing the teacher-to-student ratio would result in less individualized attention for students and more kids “falling through the cracks” of the school system, Vetter said.
But, don’t Wyoming teachers already get paid a lot?
For the past 10 years, Wyoming has spent liberally, in comparison to other states, on its K-12 schools. That’s in part because the state had the money to do so during the mid-2000s energy boom, but also because citizens and lawmakers place a high value on education.
As a result, Wyoming’s teacher salaries have grown to the point where they are some of the highest in the Rocky Mountain Region. That’s important, according to Vetter, because it gives rural districts — think Wamsutter, Meeteetse or Rock River — the ability to recruit high performing teachers. Reports show Wyoming is drawing many of its new teachers from out of state. (See page 21 here.)
At the same time, Wyoming’s rate of teacher salary growth has leveled off somewhat since the mid-2000s.
Teachers are paid well, but how does Wyoming compare nationally?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that Wyoming students are scoring higher in math and reading compared to the 1990s. That comes with a caveat that test scores haven’t risen as fast as Wyoming’s spending on education, according to consultants in a recent school funding audit report.
Even so, Wyoming’s students achieve in the top-third of states around the nation, in league with Colorado and North Dakota and far ahead of states like California.
Tweaking school funding in times of declining mineral revenue
Wyoming pays for K-12 education out of the School Foundation Program, which has its own revenue stream of state and local property taxes, Federal Mineral Royalties, and other sources. Every two years, the state spends about $1.5 billion on operations for K-12 education.
Typically, this is enough to guarantee the amount of funding dictated by Wyoming Supreme Court decisions and state law. But if revenues drop past a certain point, the difference is taken from the General Fund. That could mean cuts to other general government programs.
To prevent that, lawmakers have set aside about $650 million in reserve accounts for school funding. That should be enough to support school funding shortfalls for a while, but exactly how long could change based on the outcome of the recalibration deliberations.