A funding analysis of parts of Wyoming’s education system showed that the state spends similarly to its peers in those areas, consultants told lawmakers Wednesday.
“It’s comparable to all the studies in general,” consultant Mark Fermanich told lawmakers on the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which is conducting a broad examination of Wyoming’s education system.
The analysis looked at 12 pieces of Wyoming’s funding model and compared them to other states as part of the broader view of the school system. While the list included major parts of the Cowboy State’s method — including special education and class sizes — it was not exhaustive. It did not compare salaries, for instance, which account for the vast majority of districts’ budgets.
The absence of a salary comparison was not lost on Rep. Albert Sommers, the Pinedale Republican who is the co-chair of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration.
“Why is there no mention ... about salaries?” he asked Fermanich, who works with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, the firm hired by the state to conduct the education review. “There’s two big drivers, class size and salaries.”
Fermanich replied that many school funding studies in other states did not provide specific recommendations for salaries. They were made in subsequent reports, and so there wasn’t a consistent way to draw comparisons between those states and Wyoming.
The consultants also did not compare Wyoming’s method for funding its small schools and districts to how other states calculate money for those entities.
Still, the numbers showed that in many areas, Wyoming wasn’t spending wildly compared to its neighbors and national peers. In only two of the 12 areas — special education and gifted and talented — did Wyoming spend significantly more than the average. For special education — which is reimbursed fully by the state — Wyoming’s model pays more than $18,000 per student. In 2017-18, the state will spend about $238 million.
The comparison showed that Wyoming spent less, on average, in five areas: at-risk funding, pupil support, English language learners, instructional facilitators and instructional materials.
How much Wyoming spends on education has been a regular topic of discussion over the past year, as the state grapples with an education funding crisis that, while smaller than once anticipated, still amounts to more than $340 million for the coming two-year budget cycle. Notable legislators, including Senate President Eli Bebout, have suggested that now is the time to examine those spending levels and determine if Wyoming is receiving a proper return on its educational investment.
The state spends more than $17,000 per student, more than its neighbors and more than most states in the U.S. While other lawmakers have pushed back on the suggestion that Wyoming isn’t getting the proper bang for its buck, the idea that schools are over-funded persists.
Indeed, after the consultants finished their comparison report, Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican, wondered how Wyoming could both be spending comparably and more significantly than other states.
“Is there some point at which you have an ‘aha moment’ in here that says, ‘Here’s the difference, here’s the key driver why we spend more’?” he asked the consultants.
Fermanich replied that at least one reason is that Wyoming has implemented much of its funding model, to an extent not seen in most other states.
Sommers asked if that was because of the state’s supreme court decisions, which consultants had previously said were uniquely strict. Starting in the mid-1990s, a series of Wyoming Supreme Court decisions ruled that the state needed to fund its education system equitably and adequately to all students. Those rulings continue to serve as the foundation for school funding today.
Fermanich said that the Campbell decisions — named for the school district that was a plaintiff in those cases — certainly play a role.
The recalibration committee meets again Thursday and Friday.