Balow: Addressing our school funding crisis
I grew up watching westerns with the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne. Predictable endings – good guys riding off into the sunset after saving the town – never spoiled the action or suspense of the movie.
Wyoming hoped for the same sequence during this year’s legislative session. There was plenty of action and suspense during the session, especially around school funding. However, when our legislators tipped their hats and bid farewell to the 2021 session, they had not made inroads to solve Wyoming’s education funding woes. Without legislation, a very real school funding crisis – complicated by an influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds – remains. It’s a runaway stagecoach that will plummet over a cliff if we cannot get it turned around.
Legislators, Gov. Mark Gordon, myself and many others rely on the regular “CREG” (revenue) report to forecast how much money will be available for education. As a result of coal’s decline, the state has taken money from its “Rainy Day” account to make up shortfalls. Now, with oil and gas production on federal land in question, we are borrowing even more from a smaller “Rainy Day” account. The stagecoach falls off the cliff when the “Rainy Day” account can no longer cover the shortfalls. At the current speed, we have five, maybe six years before this will happen. To a person, members of the Wyoming Legislature see this coming, have ideas to address it and put forth the effort. But year after year, their efforts stop short of a long-term solution.
There is no better time than now to circle our wagons and figure out how to continue to provide a great education for generations to come. The state’s Constitution, affirmed by the Wyoming Supreme Court, places the responsibility of funding schools squarely on the shoulders of the legislature. At the same time, Wyoming education benefits from regular collaboration between the legislature, the governor and the state superintendent. We need not look far back in history to know that that has not always been the case. I am confident that our collaborative efforts will ultimately steer the stagecoach away from the cliff.
And we have made inroads. The first comprehensive school funding discussion during my tenure occurred during the 2017 Legislative Session. In preparation, I outlined recommendations for efficiencies in state education spending that would have resulted in $100 million a year in savings and revenues for education funding. The legislature adopted many of these recommendations into statute, such as adjusting fractional enrollment calculations, placing a moratorium on alternative schools and eliminating duplicative court-ordered placement spending.
Over the past several years, I have been outspoken about the need to update what is called the educational “basket of goods.” It is past time to create a newer version of our K-12 system that teaches for a 21st-century economy and is fiscally sustainable. So far, convincing the legislature to undertake this enormous task has fallen short; however we are making progress with the Joint Education Committee studying the topic and our State Board of Education defining the profile of a Wyoming high school graduate.
Throughout this session, I urged members of the legislature to establish a strategy to optimize every state and federal dollar. That effort failed when the school funding bill failed. I am hopeful we will work together between now and the special session in July to resurrect that effort.
As we all reflect on the session and rethink strategies, consider this plan:
Beginning with the 2021 special session, the legislature passes legislation that provides guidance on how districts can best spend federal dollars and save state dollars. They also create a working committee with legislators, the governor and the state superintendent, who are specifically charged with developing a five-year plan to resolve the education funding crisis. With a plan, future debates will not fall apart when someone whispers “lawsuit” or “taxes” in the halls of the Capitol. Small steps would be taken each year toward a comprehensive solution at the end of the five-year period. The legislature should also revive and pass legislation that allows Wyoming voters to weigh in on more local control for school capital construction.
As part of the plan, I would compile initial recommendations to update the educational “basket of goods” in consultation with legislative committees, the governor’s office, the State Board of Education and stakeholders. By 2022, and into 2023, the legislature would have ample evidence to begin work to codify an updated “basket” and make initial changes recommended by the five-year plan committee.
This all seems simple – simple enough to distill into a few paragraphs. In reality, it is not simple at all. But the future of Wyoming depends on it.