Legislature Struggles To Find 'Constitutional' Solution To Education Funding Cuts

Feb 12, 2021

For the last several years the Wyoming Senate, in particular, has been promising to make major cuts to education funding. While there have been reductions, K-12 education has not faced the types of cuts the Department of Health, the University of Wyoming, or other areas of state government has endured. This year there seems to be momentum to make education cuts, but the current proposal may not be constitutional.

K-12 education requires a certain amount every year that's based on a funding model. The model lists a number of things a district needs in order to offer an equitable and quality education. A big part of that is the basket of goods or ten content areas that must be taught, like math. Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss said there's another key point.

"The state has the complete obligation to raise revenue as necessary to meet the needs of the cost of education and for a high quality education that's equitable across the state," said Rothfuss.

This language came from the Wyoming Supreme Court who in the 1990's, forced the state to change the way it funded education.

In other words, if they are short of money, Rothfuss said lawmakers need to raise taxes for education. Something they haven't been willing to do. Rather the legislature has been using reserves to make up for a $300 million deficit.

This has led to a bill that cuts $100 million dollars out of what they pay school districts while also imposing a tax for future revenue. House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers explained the bill.

"That bill is really the vehicle for how we fund K-12 education going forward. How do we want to manage our shortfall," said Sommers.

One issue is that courts indicated that across the board cuts are not constitutional.

But Senate Majority Leader Ogden Driskill added that they need to do something different.

"We will deal with education either by ourselves or via the courts in the next six years, if you look at the trend lines it is absolutely not sustainable to do the status quo," Driskill said.

School districts say they have been willing to help out to a point.

"We are certainly working with the legislature as well as the school board to figure out ways to be more frugal and provide education with fewer dollars," said Albany County Superintendent Jubal Yennie. "And we've done that over the last five years when everything started going in a different direction." "My fellow superintendents have done that as well."

But Yennie agreed with Rothfuss that lawmakers should have figured out a way to find money to address the deficit. He pointed out that Casper Representative Steve Harshman, the former speaker of the house, actually developed a white paper with a number of solutions that was essentially ignored.

"It doesn't seem to be the time ever for people to say, well let's take a look at some other options. That may be more frustrating than anything," said Yennie.

Senator Rothfuss added that cutting back on education is a bad idea at a time when the state needs to develop smart people to get it out of its economic doldrums.

"This idea that somehow the state will be better off if we cut education is in my opinion absurd. Nothing good will happen to the state of Wyoming for cutting education," said Rothfuss.

House Majority Leader Sommers said they have few options at the moment. He noted that they will burn up their reserve account in three years at this point and then things will be worse. Sommers added it's too early to determine if their approach is constitutional.

"You know we will try and do our best to find a solution, we may not, but we will work at it. And then the districts will decide what they need to do and then ultimately the courts will decide if it goes to them," said Sommers.

But that court piece has rarely gone well for the state.