This story is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.
Nine years ago, Mark Shrum moved his family to remote Gillette, Wyoming for two reasons: a coal mine job and good schools.
This March, Shrum was laid off from the Powder River Basin’s Buckskin coal mine, but he’s not leaving.
“We’re in a tremendous setting for our kids, academically,” says Shrum. “It’s one of the primary reasons we’re doing everything we can to stay here.”
When the Shrums moved to Gillette from Sacramento in 2007, their son Jarrett was at the bottom of his class. Now 17, he’s a straight-A junior at Campbell County High School. Seventh-grader Cody is in his school’s gifted and talented program and travels the state for science competitions.
The Campbell County School District operates a children’s museum and a mental health clinic. Kids can take swim lessons in the district’s aquatic center, and the state is funding construction of a brand new high school.
"You see a lot of money spent on the students, from the technology that's present in the classrooms, the nice buildings,” says Shrum. “You also see your teachers being paid well, which keeps good teachers here, provided that there isn't shopping and restaurants and all those things that go along with large municipalities."
Shrum’s wife Traci is a kindergarten teacher in the Campbell County School District serving Gillette. In the past dozen years, Wyoming’s teacher salaries have risen more than any other state’s. Rookie teachers earn $43,000 on average, compared to about $36,000 nationwide.
When it comes to school funding, Wyoming is an exception among states in more ways than one. According to Education Week, after adjusting for regional cost differences, Wyoming spends an average of $17,513 on each student, ranking among the top-five spenders in the nation.
The national average is $11,841 per child.
Where did all of this money come from? A recent energy boom in the Cowboy State helped fuel a boom in school funding. The production of oil, gas and Gillette coal accounts for 70 percent of state revenue.
Wyoming has also spent more than $3 billion building new schools, thanks to money it made selling coal-mining rights on federal lands in Campbell County.
But the fact that Mark Shrum has lost his job also spells trouble for his district’s schools.
Across the country, oil and gas prices are dropping. Major coal producers are declaring bankruptcy, and prosperity is beginning to fade in Wyoming, especially in the small city that calls itself the “Energy Capital of the Nation.”
More than two percent of Wyoming workers lost their jobs in 2015. Most of them were well-paid energy workers like Shrum. In March, the state’s Legislature did something it hadn’t done in many years: cut K-12 funding by more than one percent.
“We’re seeing the first major concerns in my lifetime about the funding for Wyoming and its education,” Shrum says.
Things weren’t this good when Shrum, the son of a Campbell County coal miner, went to school here in the ‘80s.
Beginning in 1995, the Campbell County School District was the lead plaintiff in several Wyoming Supreme Court cases demanding adequate and equitable funding for the state’s schools.
The Court told lawmakers to “treat the wealth of the state as a whole” and to come up with a new funding model to deliver all Wyoming students the same opportunities.
That led to a Robin Hood-style funding scheme in Wyoming, where some property tax revenues generated in mineral-rich districts like Campbell County are redistributed to poorer ones.
“The Campbell decisions essentially doubled the amount of state resources we were putting into education and in some ways more than doubled it,” says Mary Kay Hill, current Governor Matt Mead’s policy director who was in the room when Wyoming’s then-Governor was handed the first Campbell decision. “The new model fully funded transportation and special education, which no other state in the nation does.”
With each court ruling, Wyoming’s approach evolved. Schools were funded to provide smaller class sizes and tutors. The state determined what an “adequate” education should look like and what it would cost to provide that to students.
Per-student funding still varies widely across Wyoming’s 48 school districts. Its smallest district borders Campbell County and spends $42,000 per student each year. In Campbell County, the state spends less than $16,000 to educate each of the Shrum boys.
As a result, Wyoming also scores poorly on some measures of funding fairness. The Education Law Center found that Wyoming provides high-poverty districts just 80 cents for every dollar provided to their low-poverty counterparts.
“It’s not equal, but it’s probably equitable,” says Campbell County Superintendent Boyd Brown, who’s been in the district nearly three decades. “I think the Legislature has done a great job with the new funding model. We just need to follow it.”
State policymakers are also quick to point out that, while funding may vary, it still exceeds the national average in every Wyoming district -- and that it does account for the high cost of educating at-risk students.
“We put an awful lot of effort into ensuring that every kid in the state has access to the same education,” says Senator Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat. “If there are disparities, they are anomalous as a result of small or large district sizes.”
There’s one other asterisk to the Wyoming story: Despite its outsized funding, test scores haven’t risen with this two-decade investment. The state remains in the middle of the pack in most measures of academic achievement.
Still, Superintendent Brown says he’s seen improvements in Gillette.
“The expectations for students have increased sharply over the 28 years I’ve been in the district,” says Brown. “Our teachers work harder than they’ve ever worked, giving students as much support and help as they can.”
No Coal Jobs In Sight
None of this would be possible if Wyoming—population 584,000—weren’t the country’s leading coal producer and energy exporter.
“It has been somewhat serendipitous that as we’ve had increased legal mandates, we’ve also seen increased revenue to match our capacity to meet those,” says Mary Kay Hill. “It is a great worry to me personally about what we’re going to do in the years ahead.”
Now, Campbell County and school districts across Wyoming are making cuts. Brown will say goodbye to at least 20 educators and a wellness program. The superintendent worries layoffs will drive more students—and funding—out of town. He’s reminding families about free- and reduced-price lunch applications and the district’s mental health clinic.
Also long-dependent on Wyoming’s energy economy, the Shrums are trimming the family budget down to the bare essentials.
With no coal jobs in sight, Mark is pursuing a special education master’s degree and teaching credential online and hopes to join his wife in the school district.
“Around here, it’s going to be very tough for a while, so I’m trying to be marketable in a career that can’t go away,” says Shrum. “I think we’ll always need teachers.”