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The Wyoming Legislative Joint Education Committee discusses the ability to fund school choice

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The Wyoming legislature’s Joint Education Committee heard testimony on Wednesday, Sept. 7, on what can be done in Wyoming with regard to implementing school choice options. School choice is a term that allows parents and families the alternative option of sending their children to schools other than those in the public school system.

In addition to 48 public school districts throughout the state, there are several private, charter, and parochial schools in several communities.

“We’re trying to figure out what of the general things in the choice area we can do that are constitutional under the state of Wyoming and which of the various proposals would take a state constitutional amendment,” said Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), co-Chairman of the Joint Committee. “There’s been some U.S. Supreme Court decisions in this area that have changed the world [with regard to school choice].”

Supporters of charter schools often claim that they offer parents more educational options than what may otherwise be available in their community and that they don’t detract funds away from existing public schools, among other reasons.

Corey DeAngelis, Senior Fellow with the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, argued that many people will say, “public funds for public schools,” meanwhile tax dollars go to private things like Pell Grants, private religious institutions and food stamps.

“Those are public taxpayer dollars that can be used at private grocery stores, and nobody has a problem with that,” he said. “So the whole talking point about public funds, public schools, it just falls apart.”

DeAngelis said that Wyoming public schools spend over $19,000 per student according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. He added that funding normally follows students, which is the prevailing model in many states. This comes out to about $10,000 per student, and the school district could keep education dollars, allowing them to spend more on each student.

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) took issue with some of DeAngelis’s conclusions.

“To me, this isn't an issue about school choice,” she said. “Our kids have school choice here in Wyoming. They can go to our public schools, we have charter schools, in many communities. We've got charter schools, in many communities, parents can send their kids to private schools, they can send their kids out of state, they can homeschool. We do have school choice. So, this isn't about school choice. It's about public funding for school choice.”

But DeAngelis argued that because only a few schools exist outside of the public school system in Wyoming, many parents don’t have much choice in where their children attend school, especially those who are of lower income levels. Connolly added that the state constitution prohibits public funding of religious schools.

“We have a strong constitutional prohibition against state money for sectarian or religious purposes,” she said. “And then it goes on with several other articles and sections, which talk very specifically about education and take that prohibition even further.”

The state hasn’t previously taken up creating a school choice program and has a history of legal troubles over the past 40 years with school finance litigation.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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