Coal Recovery

Kindergartner Paislee Moore raises her hand during class at Wright Elementary School. Lawmakers continue to debate whether the state is receiving an adequate return on its educational investment.

File, Star-Tribune

Lawmakers started their second day of education funding meetings by debating a question that’s cropped up repeatedly over the past several months: Is Wyoming getting a sufficient return on its significant investment in schools?

There are some lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, who don’t think so. They argue that the more than $16,000 the state spends per student — far more than any of Wyoming’s neighbors — isn’t justified by test scores.

One of those lawmakers is Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Republican from Sheridan. He referenced a presentation from Thursday, when consultants hired by the state to conduct a broad review of the education system here, showed that Wyoming’s standards were very similar to many of its neighbors and to some of the top performing states in the country.

And yet, he said, despite having similar programs, Wyoming was achieving similar results to states spending far less.

“So we come full circle this morning to the question of, why are we spending so much for outcomes that are not distinguishable from our neighbors?” Kinskey asked. “More importantly, what is the answer to getting more bang for our buck educationally?”

He noted that on Thursday, Michael O’Donnell — an assistant attorney general specializing in school finance — told lawmakers that a parent lawsuit based on inadequate student success was his worst nightmare.

It isn’t the first time Kinskey has raised this concern. He and Sen. President Eli Bebout have repeatedly said that now, as the state faces an education funding crisis, is the time to really look at schools and decide if Wyoming should be expecting better results for the high prices it’s been paying. They’ve cited as evidence high remedial rates at Wyoming community colleges and low standardized test scores.

And, also not for the first time, other lawmakers on the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration pushed back. Wyoming has come a long way, they argued, and its students are achieving now.

“The reality is that we’ve gotten to the point where our aggregated NAEP score in 2015 was fourth in the country,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, referring to a test taken by Wyoming elementary and middle schoolers. “Fourth behind three states: New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont that spend as much or more as we do on education.”

He said that yes, it would be great if Wyoming could achieve the same results for less money. That’s why lawmakers hired the consultants, to see if that was possible.

“Anecdotally, we seem to think that we’re doing poorly, and we keep hearing that over and over again,” he said. “But it is not born out by the data.”

The problem is that the data can work for both camps. For instance, it’s true that Wyoming’s ACT scores are in the bottom third of the nation. But it’s also true that Wyoming requires all high school juniors to take the test, whether they’re college-bound or not, in a state where roughly 50 percent of high school graduates continue their education. And of the other states that require the ACT, Wyoming is seventh.

Other lawmakers agreed with Rothfuss.

“We pay more, we get more, we do better than most states with similar demographics,” said Rep. Albert Sommers, referring to states that are heavily reliant on the mineral industry. “So I think this argument is getting old.”

House Speaker Steve Harshman said colleges are moving away from remedial classes. He noted that graduation rates, when he was growing up, hovered around 50 percent. It’s now around 80 percent, though he and Rothfuss both said the rate could be higher.

“The bottom line is, we have a lot of classrooms in this state,” he continued. “Could we reduce classrooms? Absolutely. Sen. Kinskey, I think you have five high schools in your district. Four of them you could bus to Sheridan High School, it has 400 empty seats. ... Gonna close down Buffalo, Tongue River and Big Horn? I don’t think so.”

The discussion was the most frank public push back against the claim that Wyoming’s students aren’t achieving, a notion educators have also fought. Both Harshman and Rothfuss have refuted it at past meetings, but Friday was perhaps their most forceful rebuttal.

Harshman, who has advocated a balanced approach to tackling the state’s looming education funding shortfall, bid good luck to legislators who want to cut schools to the bone.

“We could shut down small-town Wyoming. We could take our high schools and cut the numbers in half. We could bus all of Glenrock to Casper,” he said. “Let’s have those votes. Good luck. Or we can say we can pay our teachers a $25,000 starting wage. Good luck. You won’t have any teachers.”

Sen. R. Ray Peterson, a Cowly Republican, said the current system is unsustainable and that a solution would have to come from a combination of what lawmakers have suggested in the past.

“There’s going to have to be reductions and there’s going to have to be tax increases,” he said.

Bridging the gap

While some lawmakers tried to put to rest the assertion that students aren’t achieving, the challenges facing Wyoming schools remain.

Two weeks ago, lawmakers on the Joint Education Committee proposed a number of possibilities to cut into the projected $480 million education funding shortfall that the state faces in the coming two-year budget cycle. Some will be written into legislation to be considered and, potentially, brought before the entire Legislature come February.

On Friday afternoon, just before the recalibration committee adjourned, its legislators received an update on those options. Several of those possibilities were brought up at various points in the past.

For instance, the’re’s the idea of cutting funding for “ghost teachers.” In the state’s current funding model, the state provides school districts with money for health insurance for its employees. But many of those employees don’t use the districts’ insurance plans, and thus the school district has extra money to spend elsewhere.

Matt Wilmarth, an education funding expert for the state, said right-sizing insurance funding could save around $40 million a year.

But Harshman argued that districts weren’t “burning (that money) to heat classrooms. They’re spending it on teachers.”

The education committee recommended a number of other options, including:

  • changing how attendance — which determines how much funding a district receives — is calculated to ensure no overlap;
  • amend publication requirements for school districts, who are mandated to post certain notices into newspapers;
  • direct the state Department of Education and educators to modify current rules about transportation and special education.

The recalibration committee will meet again in late November, while the education committee — which will consider the cost-cutting recommendations that are drafted into legislation — convenes two weeks before.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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