School Funding Is A Tricky Political Equation

Apr 14, 2017

Earlier this month, legislators met to take another look at the school funding model and possibly change it. That’s called recalibration. But changing school funding is a tricky business because politics is a big variable in the spending equation. At the April 3rd meeting of the Select Committee for School Finance Recalibration, there was only one thing that everyone could agree on. And that was, as Bill Schilling from the Wyoming Business Alliance put it, "We can’t cut or tax our way out of this." Resolving the $400 million education deficit is going to take a balance of both.

And while the cost of K-12 education in Wyoming tallies up among the highest in the nation, administrators like Sweetwater County District Two Superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo pleaded with lawmakers that it’s with good reason.

“One of the things that we face in Wyoming is the rural nature,” said Little-Kaumo. Because they don’t have a lot of theaters and amenities that larger towns have, Little-Kaumo said means that attracting teachers to rural Wyoming requires money.

And while the committee was generally sympathetic to the challenges faced by rural schools, Senator Ray Peterson, who also chairs the Senate Revenue Committee, said he doesn’t feel comfortable asking for tax increases when he sees over spending.

“I mean this is getting irrational anymore,” said Peterson. “We’re spending money because we have it. And now when a downturn hits everyone is crying and complaining about reductions.”

But supposedly this is a cost-based model grounded in data. So where is there room for the kind of gratuitous spending Peterson is concerned about?

Dr. Lori Taylor, who has consulted on the last two recalibrations, said, “you definitely could make the case that the way the regional cost adjustment is set up would lead to relatively overfunding certain districts.”

What’s the regional cost adjustment? This is something the state devised when they were trying to address equity in school funding and how the regional cost adjustment is supposed to work. In more remote communities where the amenities aren’t great, you might have to pay a teacher more to lure them to the area. Similarly, in more urban areas, you might have to pay a teacher more to cover a higher cost of housing. So the regional cost adjustment provides districts the extra funds they need to be able to attract qualified staff in each of these situations.

And the adjustment also equates for districts with below average costs. Places with affordable housing and beautiful surroundings -- where it’s easier to attract teachers -- wouldn’t need the help and so their funding would be adjusted down.

But Dr. Taylor said districts with below average costs don’t actually get less because politics tweaked the math. She said the legislature decided to fund all districts at the state average or above.

“But the whole definition of an average is some people are above and some people are below average,” said Taylor, and as a result “the resources going to any district below the state average with respect to regional cost are greater than would be necessary to fund the model.”

So what Taylor is saying is the state pays districts money that it doesn’t need to. But they did it to keep everybody happy. Senator Chris Rothfuss of Laramie is a longtime member of the joint education committee. He said legislators understand they have a problem.

“We’ve taken hours upon hours upon hours of testimony on it. We’ve hired consultants and we’ve had people who are capable of doing that come in and give us their recommendation.” He said those proposals, “are better than what we’ve got in terms of its scientific integrity. And we’ve never adopted it.”

According to estimates by the legislative services office, adopting Dr. Lori Taylor’s recommendation could save the state up to $38 million a year, but going with the more cost effective option is a political battle the legislature has not wanted to fight.

Regional cost adjustment is one of the several areas where politics seem to trump efficient spending. The legislature also deviates from the model on class size for example. And Rothfuss pointed to a proposal to consolidate districts, which without closing any schools, would streamline administrative costs, saving up to $7.5 million, but he said, “school districts do not want consolidation. Many legislatures do not want consolidation. It’s probably not politically viable to have that conversation.”

So the challenge before the recalibration committee is finding the sweet spot between what’s financially viable and what’s politically viable.

Rothfuss said that’s what some lawmakers tried to do during the 2017 legislative session with something called the education white paper.

“We worked on trying to achieve cuts of $80 million a year. And those looked painful. Nobody was excited about those cuts,” said Rothfuss. “But they were achievable. And the idea was let’s try to identify cuts and then identify revenue that’s equal to those cuts as a sort of a fairness type concept where we will try to balance those two things.”

But that idea went nowhere. Instead, the legislature only reduced the budget by $34.5 million, generated no revenue and called for this recalibration. By the way, those cuts are less than the amount proposed by tweaking the regional cost adjustment. In other words, there are a lot of challenges to work out this summer. And it seems like it may have more to do with politics than mathematical recalculations. There are solutions out there, they just have to get them passed.