State leaders ignored school funding and now the bill has come due

If you turn a blind eye to a problem, that doesn’t make it go away.

 That was apparent earlier this month when the state was hit with a lawsuit from the Wyoming Education Association alleging that it failed, as constitutionally required, to adequately fund public education. As a result of that failure, the association maintains, cracks are beginning to show in Wyoming’s public school system in the form of larger class sizes, aging infrastructure, insufficient security and struggles to hire enough teachers.

The suit doesn’t seek a specific dollar amount. “But this is going to be a very substantial amount of money,” Patrick Hacker, one of the group’s lawyers, told the Star-Tribune.

None of this should be a surprise. While the governor’s office put out a statement after the lawsuit’s filing saying it would have preferred to resolve the matter outside the courts, Wyoming has known for some time that its educational bill would soon come due. But state leaders either chose to ignore that fact, quibble over the details or argue about educational issues with no bearing on our state. And now here we are.

The origins of the lawsuit date back decades. The Wyoming Supreme Court held in a series of cases between 1980 and 2008 that the state’s old system for financing schools, which was based on local property taxes, was unconstitutional. Under the so-called “Campbell County cases,” the high court defined what a quality education entailed in Wyoming. The rulings also meant the state was obligated to perform cost-of-education studies and adjust funding based on inflation, among other things.

The state paid for the studies, but lawmakers haven’t always followed the recommendations of the consultants they hired. For example, in 2018 the state spent $800,000 to perform a review of the education funding system. Lawmakers anticipated that the review would find ways to save money. Instead, the review determined that the state should be spending tens of millions more than it was. So lawmakers rejected the recommendation and moved on without a solution.

And Wyoming’s education system has repeatedly gone without solutions. The answers aren’t exactly easy. The state’s revenue streams aren’t what they once were thanks to changes in the energy industry. That leaves decision makers with two choices: raise more funds through taxes or make cuts elsewhere. With no easy answer, our politicians have opted for a third option: kicking the can down the road.

Of late, they’ve also taken to focusing on distractions. So instead of worrying about the massive funding shortfalls facing the system, lawmakers have “fought” critical race theory, which isn’t taught in the state, or fretted about girls’ locker rooms, even though there is no evidence of a problem.

But the piper must still be paid. Our leaders had time to solve this problem. They could have followed their own funding model. Now, they’ll likely spend even more money — in the form of legal bills — than they would have if they just solved the school finance issue in the first place. Ignoring problems, or looking for distractions, can only put off the inevitable for so long.

Cody Enterprise, Aug. 24