Gillette schools

Students pass through the halls of Prairie Wind Elementary School in February 2016 in Gillette. Lawmakers are debating which other schools in the nation serve as the best comparison for Wyoming’s schools.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

In the background of broader discussions about how to fund education in Wyoming, lawmakers and educators have discussed and often debated how to compare Wyoming schools — and its students’ results — to other states.

Should officials look at nearby states, such as Utah, which spends significantly less per student than Wyoming? Should those act as a blueprint of how to fund schools here and of how students should be performing on tests?

Several lawmakers, including Sen. President Eli Bebout and Sen. Majority Leader Drew Perkins, have pointed out that the Equality State spends more than $16,000 per student — more than $6,000 more than some other Western states.

Or should lawmakers look at the very best education systems in the country — like those in Massachusetts and Vermont — for a way to become their peer in test results?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle, officials have said. In the past, the question of comparability has served as a way for some cut-minded lawmakers to point out how well funded the Wyoming school system is. But now, as educators, consultants and legislators begin examining the education funding model, the question of how Wyoming stacks up is more pressing and vital to discussions about the fiscal future of schools here.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, summed it up at a key legislative meeting in Casper last week.

“If all we want to do is beat our neighbors, we’re doing that,” he said. “What do we want? To be the best of seven (nearby) states and then stop trying to compare to rest of the country? Or do we want to have education system that’s equal to East Coast states or West Coast states?”

He argued that before the current funding crisis — schools face a $530 million deficit in the coming two-year budget cycle — the quest was for the state’s education system to be up there with the best. Now, he said, it’s about Wyoming’s cheaper neighbors.

“I’m not willing to surrender yet,” Rothfuss said.

The challenge of comparisons

Wyoming’s geographic and socioeconomic realities make it difficult to find an exact comparison. The state is rural and requires expensive transportation not just for activities but for some students simply to get to school every day. Districts have said they need to offer more money to teachers and administrators to entice them to come here rather than to states like Colorado or Utah. Health care, a costly part of teachers’ salary packages, is especially expensive in Wyoming.

The list goes on, officials have said. And indicators for student success that nominally make it easy to compare Wyoming to other states, like the ACT, are also not clear-cut.

Wyoming ranks 39th nationally for its ACT scores, Sen. Dave Kinskey noted at the legislative meeting last week. But Speaker Steve Harshman replied that the state is one of only 13 that requires all students take the test, whether they’re bound for college or not. Of those 13, Wyoming ranks fourth.

In a state where a sizable chunk of the population doesn’t continue education after high school, comparing ACT scores may not be a fair indicator.

So what’s the answer? To what states should Wyoming compare? Lawmakers and the consultants they hired to examine the school funding system don’t have an answer yet, but discussions during the meeting suggested it might be a mix of nearby states, the nation’s leaders in education — primarily on the East Coast — and other rural states.

Rep. Albert Sommers, who chairs the committee, mentioned Vermont, a state with a strong education system that spends more than Wyoming per student. But he noted it was much smaller than Wyoming.

He also mentioned Alaska, a large, rural state that also spends about $4,000 more than Wyoming.

In an interview late last week, Wyoming School Board Association Executive Director Brian Farmer supported the idea of comparing Wyoming elsewhere but said it needed to be an apples-to-apples comparison. He wasn’t sure what that would look like and also worried that the consultants wouldn’t have much time to perform an in-depth comparison: The firm needs to have a considerable amount of work done in the next five months.

Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent in Sweetwater County No. 2, said it was a good idea to compare, though she too said Wyoming’s rural nature had to be taken into account. Utah may seem an easy comparison, she said, but it has a major population center — Salt Lake City — that is more than three times the size of Cheyenne, the largest city in Wyoming. That throws off the data, she said.

Sommers acknowledged it would be difficult to satisfy everyone and find fair states to draw comparisons to.

“It’s about what is the opportunity for kids in Wyoming compared to opportunity elsewhere,” he said at the meeting. “Who’s doing really well in the U.S.? ... I think your challenge is to find us a different set of comparisons.”

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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