As the Wyoming legislative session draws near, its arguably most pressing issue remains suspended in the air.
For the second straight year, the 90-person Legislature will work to solve an education funding deficit that tops $300 million a biennium. But this year is different: Not only is it a budget session that will likely last just 20 business days, but the body will also have new information to consider as it ponders how to cut costs, maintain quality education and keep the state out of court.
The new data will come from a process known as recalibration, a top-down review of the state’s education system. The study was scheduled to take place in 2020, but the legislature decided to trigger it early due to the funding crisis. The study will look at everything from the state’s educational offerings to the dollars spent to fund those programs.
“I think education is going to be one of the big topics because of the budget and recalibration over the interim,” said Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association. “Is there going to be an increase in taxes? And if so, what kind?”
The possibility of raising taxes is probably the most controversial question surrounding the education deficit. While House Speaker Steve Harshman has advocated a balanced approach that includes conditional tax increases, Senate President Eli Bebout — and many others in the senate — are firmly against it.
Indeed, in light of a strong Consensus Revenue Estimate Group report released in October, Sen. Bill Landen — a Casper Republican and relative moderate on education — said he thought taxes were likely off the table.
Recalibration is also potentially legally dicey. First, the process defines what an adequate and equitable education is for every child in Wyoming. Then it determines how much it costs to deliver that education, with little regard to the state’s economic realities. Essentially, it cannot be used to slash budgets. There’s potential, then, that the report could recommend spending more money on education than the state is currently.
For months, educators have suggested that recalibration is a backdoor attempt to cut education. Harshman warned last spring that the process wouldn’t bring the reductions needed to solve the deficit.
“In the end, are we here to do a comprehensive solution?” the speaker said in April. “If we think recalibration is going to somehow find $400 million a year in savings, I think we traveled here for the wrong reason today.”
Still, some lawmakers — notably Bebout and Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican — have charged that Wyoming students’ academic performances are sub par for the amount of money spent. Although they’ve stopped short of saying recalibration must be used to address what they view as a discrepancy, they continually bring it up.
Now, as the Legislature heads into the session, much rests on the findings of the recalibration consultants and the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration’s response to it. Last week, the consultants released their draft report, which largely included tweaks of the current funding model.
Notably missing was a dollar amount. That’s a crucial piece of this effort: Will the suggestions cost more or less, and how significant will the battle be between legislators and educators over that result?
Those numbers will be available on Jan. 12, officials have said, 11 days before the committee meets for a final time before the session begins on Feb. 12.
It’s entirely possible that the committee disregards what the consultants bring forward. They may say, as they did during the 2015 recalibration, that the current model is acceptable. Sen. Chris Rothfuss said he was 50/50 on whether that would happen. Sweetwater County School District No. 2 Superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo said she expected them to drop the recommendations.
In that case, legislators will likely pick apart pieces of the current model to find savings. Indeed, they’ve already started: The Joint Education Committee approved a bill that would cut more than $16 million from schools. Increasing class sizes — which can have a significant effect on districts’ funding — has been a favorite of some lawmakers.
But educators warn that opening up the model and doing piecemeal revisions can have a reverberating effect. For instance, hiking up class sizes will almost certainly cost all 48 districts money. That, in turn, will likely mean lower salaries for teachers. Will educators come to Wyoming for less pay?
In the end, much depends on recalibration. If the consultants return a report that shows cuts, the question will be if it’s equitable and adequate and whether the whole committee accepts it. If they return recommendations that show no savings or an increase in funding, will the committee approve it?
Hovering above all of this is the potential for litigation. One vocal educator told the Star-Tribune last spring that three districts were prepared to file lawsuits. Four of the five largest districts in the state — excluding Natrona County — passed resolutions to allow them to sue the state should they feel cuts have gone too far.
But lawmakers have largely not been cowed by the threat of a lawsuit, and as the months have gone by, the possibility seems to have fallen. But a legislative session with heavy cuts could change that.
“Obviously some (educators) are saying, ‘If we don’t like what we get, we’ll sue you,’” Bebout said. “Well, sue us.”