A school funding proposal would cost Wyoming more than $1.54 billion a year, roughly $50 million more than the current system’s price tag, according to an education consultants’ report that was released to the public Monday.
The final report is the penultimate moment in a nine-month process of reviewing the state’s funding model. The high price tag quashes any hope that some lawmakers may have had that recalibration, as the examination is known, would help solve — at least partially — the state’s education funding deficit.
“I was somewhat hopeful that we would have a reduced recommended model, rather than the Picus and Odden model, which we’ve always felt is a pretty rich model,” said Sen. Hank Coe, referring to the state’s current funding system. “But it didn’t turn out that way. I can remember Speaker (Steve) Harshman saying last year at the session, ‘Recalibration is OK, but be careful what you ask for.’ And that’s kind of what’s reared its ugly head.”
Coe, a Cody Republican, said legislative staff told him the $1.54 billion recommendation is about $50 million more than what the state currently spends. In the 2016-17 school year, the price tag was $1.49 billion, according to state data.
With the legislative session set to begin Feb. 12, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration — of which Coe is chairman — will hold two final meetings at the end of this month to consider the proposal. It will likely be drafted into a bill, Coe said, which the committee may choose to vote through to be considered during the session.
But he cautioned that he didn’t think it would have the support to make it that far, although he said he had not polled the senators on the committee.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat who also sits on the committee, said he would be surprised if the Legislature “had an appetite to increase spending by another $50 million.”
He added that the findings reinforced that, despite criticism from some lawmakers and others, Wyoming’s education system was appropriately funded.
“I think what it did was put to rest – hopefully – this idea that if we sought out a different consultant we’d get a different answer,” Rothfuss said. “It did quite the opposite. They spent several months working throughout the state ... and at the end of it all, they came back with a number that was within a few percentage points of where we’ve been.”
The proposal was drafted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a Denver-based firm hired by the state to examine the current funding system and Wyoming’s schools at large. Recalibration, which was scheduled to begin in 2020, was triggered last March by lawmakers as they grappled with an education funding deficit that at one time was as large as $700 million.
“When we look around the country obviously there are some states that fund education at a dramatically lower rate than Wyoming,” Rothfuss said. “There are members of the Senate that really wanted (the consultants) to explain to us how we can spend those very, very low dollar amounts. That was the hope.”
The state-hired experts set out to review Wyoming’s funding system, compare the state to others across the country and consider alternate models.
In December, the consultants sent the first draft of their proposed model to lawmakers. The report— among other things — recommended increasing both teacher salaries and classroom sizes. The two moves would seek to more accurately reflect what’s happening in school districts, where class sizes are slightly higher than what the state pays for, with more money being used to boots teachers’ salaries.
Notably missing from that December report, however, was an estimated financial impact. This final report, then, gave lawmakers — and the public — their first look at how the consultants’ proposal compared to what the state currently spends on schools.
It also did what some educators had been warning lawmakers about for months: It proposed an increase to state education funding. While some lawmakers had suggested that recalibration could be the vehicle for cutting schools, that is not its intended purpose.
The process is first used to establish what constitutes an equitable and adequate education to all Wyoming children. After that’s set, the consultants must determine how much money is needed to deliver that education.
So, educators have said for months, recalibration could return a cheaper model. But it could also bring a more expensive one.
In that end, that’s what’s happened. Coe said he was disappointed with how recalibration was conducted by the consultants and with the final product. He had supported the review last session but said Monday he said in hindsight he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t pursue it,” Coe said.
Harshman, a Casper Republican, said he couldn’t remember where the idea of an early recalibration came from last year. He said he supported it and thought more “information was a good thing.”
He and Coe both said they anticipated the model would be converted into a bill draft so the committee would consider it. But whether the committee will support a bill that hikes the price of education instead of cuts it is unclear, at best.
The recommendation leaves the path forward unclear. The state still has an education deficit to tackle, recalibration or not. Rothfuss and Brian Farmer, who heads the Wyoming School Boards Association, both warned against cut-minded lawmakers taking pieces of the consultants’ proposal and trying to pass it through legislation as a la carte options.
For instance, the proposal calls for increasing class sizes. In a vacuum, tinkering with student-to-teacher ratios could result in a significant cut to districts’ budgets. But in the consultants’ recommendation, the cut was balanced out with salary increases, that impact was heavily — if not entirely — blunted.
But if a legislator were to propose a bill that solely cut class sizes without increasing salaries, then the cut would be heavy.
“It explicitly says in the final report that that is unacceptable,” Rothfuss said. “But I still expect to hear it” during the session.
Coe said the Senate is still opposed to any revenue increases until there are more cuts, and a bill sponsored by the Joint Education Committee would cut more than $16 million from schools next year. But Rothfuss said lawmakers were saying the same thing last session, that cuts have to come first. More than $36 million was cut then, and no revenue has been raised.
“I haven’t heard the rhetoric change,” he said.
Harshman, who backed a five-part approach to tackling the deficit last year, said he support a similar package this time around. Rothfuss said he would want that as well.
Harshman added that lawmakers would have to give Wyomingites “an honest-to-God balance sheet.” That accounting will have to involve diverting some savings into revenue for schools, he said.