Sen. President Eli Bebout suggested he was disappointed that a recent education report lacked an analysis of why Wyoming spends so much on education compared to its neighbors.
“What I really wanted to see: I wanted to be able to look at and analyze why we spend so much more money,” he said Wednesday. “We don’t seem to get an answer.”
He said that lawmakers are unlikely to obtain that analysis in the final report.
The report was released Monday by consultants hired by the state to conduct a top-to-bottom review of Wyoming’s education system. While it was similar to a lighter briefing presented to lawmakers earlier this month, the draft report provided the most fleshed out look into the consultants’ work.
The consultants recommend a number of changes, but the ones that caught the eye of most educators and lawmakers were changes to teachers’ salaries and class sizes. Both recommendations would move the two areas closer to what’s happening in districts.
Essentially, because districts receive their state funding in block grants, they have wide latitude as to what they do with those dollars. Most pay their teachers more and make class sizes slightly larger, both of which are different than what the state funding model expects.
The wide-ranging review of the education system, called recalibration, typically takes place every five years but was initiated three years early last spring to deal with the state’s looming education funding crisis. Bebout, who largely drives the agenda of the state Senate and has been resolutely against tax increases to fill the schools’ deficit, said he was against hiring the Denver-based consultants who conducted the review.
“I was in the minority because we went ahead (with hiring the consultants),” Bebout said. “Some of these questions like we’re going over, I didn’t think we’d end up getting it.”
Bebout, along with some senators — prominently Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican — have been critical of Wyoming’s schools’ performance. The state spends about $17,000 per student.
Bebout wanted to know why and said consultants in general have failed to demonstrate it. He said he “should expect more in Wyoming when I pay closer to $17,000.”
The argument about whether Wyoming is getting a big enough bang for its buck has come up repeatedly as lawmakers have examined its education system. There’s evidence for and against how much money is spent. For instance, the state is consistently ranked in the bottom half for ACT scores. Statistically, it’s in the middle of the pack in some categories of the statewide assessment.
But other lawmakers argue those are misleading statistics. The ACT, for instance, is given to every junior in the state, regardless of whether that student is heading to college. Sen. Chris Rothfuss has noted that the aggregated state assessment scores are actually top five in the nation. House Speaker Steve Harshman noted that graduation rates have gone up since he was in high school.
Still, there’s some credence to Bebout’s criticism, which he has voiced repeatedly for months. For instance, the consultants found that Wyoming’s education standards are similar to a number of other states, but the state spends significantly more than many of them. On the other hand, it also spends similarly to a number of states— though, crucially, it did not compare salaries, which account for 80 to 85 percent of district’s budgets.
Essentially, the question of whether Wyoming has received a return on its significant education investment is difficult to answer, with both sides clinging to evidence they say is conclusive.
While Bebout somewhat demurred on the question of whether he’ll cut education as a result of what he sees as inadequate results, he reiterated that he was firmly against a tax increase. He suggested the Senate would introduce “responsible reductions” in the coming legislative session, similar to proposals that were swiftly killed by a more moderate House last winter.
For him and other senators, they say it comes down to results.
“Well, for me, again if you’re going to pay that much, you should be getting the results that are much better,” Bebout said.