Wyoming Education Requirements Could Be Overhauled

Feb 28, 2020

The Wyoming Legislature will be undertaking what is called a recalibration of its school funding system. It's a process where lawmakers look at what they require of educators and the state is paying enough for education. But for the first time since it was developed, the committee will study what is in Wyoming's basket of goods. Those are the skills and content areas students are required to learn, such as math and science.

The idea of a basket of goods was developed following a major court case in the 1990s that put in place the requirement for a state-funding model for education. It's a system that determines how much money a school will receive. State Superintendent Jillian Balow said the time to review the basket is overdue.

"So since the mid 1990s, we've added things to the basket, we've created more rigorous standards and skills associated with the basket but never examined the basket itself," said Balow.

All experts agree that the basket doesn't reflect needs for the future. Wyoming School Boards Association Director Brian Farmer said updating it is tricky.

"So how do we have this balance of equal educational opportunities, yet the flexibility to meet the needs of kids? I think that's the real challenge going forward is creating a basket that can do both of those things," said Farmer.

Farmer added that school board members are looking for a basket that considers educating students as well as getting them ready for the workforce.

"So there's a real interest in teaching kids those skills that will make them 21st century ready. And in some communities, that might be very heavy interest in career and technical education," noted Farmer. "So when you look at Shoshoni, they built a new school and that school was built with CTE in mind. "

Farmer added that the new model should also reflect such things as how districts might use technology.

For Superintendent Balow it needs to have requirements, but allow schools and classrooms to look into new and innovative ways of teaching. She said working in ways to use virtual education and higher education should be part of the mix. Wyoming Education Association President Kathy Vetter said she's both excited and nervous about the work ahead.

Credit Bob Beck

"We have to get it right. This is the future for our students, these are our young people. If we don't get it right, we aren't going to do it again for five years."

Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss doubts the focus will be on improving education.

"I think the reason we are getting into the basket is to much about and to come up with reasons to cut funding and cut quality of education. And it's now a really a genuine effort to improve education in the state of Wyoming," said Rothfuss.

The reason why Rothfuss thinks this way is because lawmakers tried everything they could to reduce school funding through the last couple of recalibrations. Instead, consultants told them that they needed to add money, something they didn't do. Then in his State of the State message, Gov. Mark Gordon indicated that there might be a way to find savings by modernizing the basket. Rothfuss laughs at this.

"The only way right now in the state of Wyoming to save money truthfully is to fire teachers. We've done a lot of work over the last five years trying to improve efficiency and that's mostly what's left," noted Rothfuss. "So as we cut the block grant, we lose teachers, class sizes go up that's the natural outcome."

Rothfuss said lawmakers have to fund education with taxes, plain and simple. Senate Education Chairman Hank Coe thought they'd have some new revenue by now.

"The Revenue Committee tried. I know when Sen. Peterson was here they laid everything on the table and voted for nothing."

Coe admits that having to talk about how to fund education every session gets old.

"It does frustrate me a little bit. Where are we going to be in ten years?"

Coe laughed when asked if the state should charge tuition, but he admitted they didn't have any other viable plans.

Superintendent Balow said it's her task to focus the committee on making education the best it can be and deal with the cost later. Sen. Rothfuss said he wishes her well. Lawmakers will begin recalibration efforts in the next few months.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Bob Beck, at btwo@uwyo.edu.