ARAPAHOE — Fremont County School District 38’s administrative building is so blue it nearly evaporates into the sky on a sunny day. Surrounded by open fields that allow for a clear view of snow capped peaks, the small building used to be home to Four Winds Charter High School, now named Arapaho Charter High School.
It is one of five charter schools in Wyoming. Grant money secured in the early 2000s paid for the building’s construction according to Fremont County School District 38 Superintendent Roy Brown. The founders of the charter school wanted a local option for kids that traveled to Ethete, Pavillion, or even Lander to attend high school but struggled in those environments and dropped out.
The Arapaho Charter High School with just 32 students, aims to be more culturally responsive to its primarily Native-American student body and provides services like day care for students with kids. The entire student body of Arapaho Charter High School is low income, according to a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
In many ways, it is a prime example of what charter school advocates say is possible with more autonomy — specialized education programs for students with the greatest needs. But it’s not an entirely independent enterprise.
The school board for Fremont County School District 38 and the charter school’s board of directors are one and the same. The charter high school now shares a campus and teachers with the public middle school next door.
“Essentially we are operating as one entity, but still acknowledge that technically there’s a charter high school and a K-8 public school,” Brown said.
Historically, the Equality State has been sluggish on expanding school choice options — be that standing up charter schools or implementing voucher programs. Wyoming is one of six states where less than 1% of public school students are enrolled in public charter schools according to a 2021 report from the National School Boards Association.
Several factors are responsible for the state’s wariness. Wyoming’s small population makes it difficult for the supply and demand economics to pencil out. The state’s constitution also prohibits the use of public education dollars for private, religious education. Plus, there’s a culture in Wyoming of public schools serving as small towns’ community centers.
The charter schools that do exist, like Arapaho Charter High School, tend to fill very specific community needs and work closely with school districts.
Nevertheless, support for school choice has persisted, and even become more prominent in recent years — the Legislature will study school choice policy options during the interim and candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction have voiced their willingness to support such programs.
Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow noted in her resignation statement that she would “enhance school choice” in Virginia, where she now serves in a similar role. Legislators like Rep. John Romero-Martinez (R-Cheyenne) would like to see “education freedom” and voucher programs become more than a velleity in the state.
Ambivalence persists too, with critics of charter school expansion and voucher programs saying they fail to address, and potentially exacerbate, the bigger question of education funding in the state.
“There’s a lot of support in Wyoming for the public school system,” said Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne). “And that’s great. I mean, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But I think realistically, not every kid fits in the same box.”
Before 2001, there were no charter schools or charter school laws in Wyoming. That changed when a group of parents in Laramie decided they wanted to stray from the curriculum offered by the local school district, says John Cowper, principal of Snowy Range Academy, the first charter school in the state.
Legislation passed following their lobbying efforts, Cowper said, and in 2001 Snowy Range Academy opened its doors. The school requires uniforms and high levels of parent involvement according to Cowper. “We believe parents are the first teacher, we are the second teacher,” he said.
In 2021 the Legislature passed another law allowing charter schools to avoid local school districts and apply through the State Loan and Investment Board instead.
It remains unclear if the procedural change will result in more charter schools. WyoFile spoke with every charter school in the state and each administrator said their relationship with their school district was amicable, and the districts were helpful partners throughout the application process. “I personally would want to continue with the same process,” said Jeff Verosky, principal of the Laramie Montessori Charter.
“We want to be partners with our charter schools that come in because we want what’s best for our kids,” said Eric Jackson, assistant director of instruction for Laramie County School District One. In the last year he’s noticed more interest from groups that want to start a charter school. But that amounted to a total of three phone calls and one application.
The Wyoming Department of Education drafted the new rules and application process for charters and is awaiting Gov. Mark Gordon’s final approval. “Fundamentally it’s the same kind of a deal,” said Chad Auer, WDE chief of staff. “I don’t know how many charter applications we will get, but certainly there are people that are interested and I anticipate applications, that’s for sure.”
Aside from charter school authorization changes, the Legislature has shown little appetite for advancing other school choice related bills.
There was a 2012 bill amending the Wyoming Constitution and allowing the Legislature to fund schools “not under the absolute control of the state.”’ It was never introduced.
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) sponsored House Bill 228 – Tax credit education savings account in 2017, which failed to get out of committee.
Wilson sponsored House Bill 106 – Wyoming education options act in 2021, a bill that would have reimbursed parents for private school costs. That bill also died in committee.
The Wyoming Constitution prohibits directing education dollars to “any person, corporation or community not under the absolute control of the state, nor to any denominational or sectarian institution or association.”
A 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits states from specifically discriminating against religious schools, putting the viability of the prohibition against religious institutions into question, but the “not under the absolute control of state” portion of the law seems to stand.
“I’m not sure that there’s a real complete understanding of the constitutional restrictions,” said House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment). “We have a number of members in the Legislature that bring that up as a perennial topic. But I’m reluctant to spend a lot of legislative and committee time on that until someone brings the necessary constitutional amendments and gets those passed.”
The current options
At the Montessori Charter School in Laramie students don’t sit in traditional desks, they choose the types of projects they work on and outdoor excursions are a priority.
While the PODER Academy, a charter in Cheyenne, focuses on creating a strict classroom environment for underperforming students. “We really hold parents accountable, you know, we’re on the phone with them constantly,” said Chief Operating Officer Nick Avila.
Public schools across Wyoming also already offer a lot of choices, says Wyoming School Boards Association Executive Director Brian Farmer. Plus, there’s the five statewide virtual education programs, and numerous private school options.
He points to the open enrollment policy in Casper and to a program in Albany county where kids who want to experience a smaller school environment can be bussed to Rock River.
Districts can also broker agreements allowing students to transfer between them. Farmer noted many public schools offer dual language immersion programs, and advanced placement courses.
“There’s a ton of choice that already exists within public schools,” he said. “And I think for the large part that has satisfied families.”
Structural funding problems
Nate Martin, an Albany County School District One school board member, says that voucher programs and charter school expansion are appealing to some because they theoretically could lower education costs through competition.
“The reason that more and more people who are not fringe ideologues have become interested in charter schools is because of the state’s failure to diversify its tax system, and find revenues that aren’t dependent on the faltering fossil fuel industry,” said Martin.
Rather than focusing on cost cutting measures, he wants the Legislature to diversify revenue sources. Plus, Martin worries about the negative impact of charter schools siphoning off a public school’s best students.
“I have questions about the self-selecting nature of who attends these schools. They’re necessarily populated by students who have parents who are actively engaged in their education,” Martin said. “I think the research clearly bears out that if you mix in students from more difficult backgrounds with students who are higher performing, it has a tendency to raise all boats.”
That’s not always the case in Wyoming, at least for now, with schools like Arapaho Charter serving students that were otherwise struggling in traditional public high schools.
Most studies show that students in charter schools perform about the same as their matched peers in the traditional public schools, but there is variation across different types of schools and groups of students according to Brookings. While charters once garnered a diverse range of political supporters — former president Barack Obama instated ‘National Charter Schools Week’ — it has increasingly become a talking point of the right as coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles rethink charter schools.
Despite politicking around the issue of school choice, educators in the state remain unconvinced.
“Anytime that we’re detracting from the dollars that go towards public education, we’re doing harm to not just the system but the students as well,” said Tate Mullen, director of government relations at the Wyoming Education Association. “Not to say that WEA doesn’t believe that parents and students shouldn’t have a choice, but those dollars don’t follow the student.”
Those dollars, he says, should remain in Wyoming’s public schools.