Lawmakers approved a measure Thursday that would create a committee to study Wyoming’s educational system, a process that must take place twice a decade to ensure the state is meeting its constitutional requirements.
The process — known as recalibration — is designed to study the state’s education system and ensure it remains cost-based. Wyoming’s K-12 funding system was radically reshaped at the beginning of the 21st century by a series of landmark court cases brought by school districts. As a result of the decisions from the state Supreme Court, Wyoming’s Legislature must study their education system every five years.
Recalibration involves a select committee of legislators, appointed by leaders in the state House and Senate. That committee, with the approval of the Legislature’s management council, then hires an educational consultant group to conduct the review.
Essentially, the consultants will study what constitutes an equitable and adequate education for every Wyoming K-12 student, from Cheyenne to Cody and Kemmerer to Sheridan. That review will look at salaries, class sizes and the cost of living in various cities. Previous iterations also compared Wyoming to its neighbors.
After establishing what the education should be, the consultants will then set out to determine how much it costs to deliver that education.
That review will likely end with the consultants bringing forth a proposed model to institute its findings.
As lawmakers eye ways to curtail costs amid falling state revenue, educators have reminded lawmakers that recalibration is not a way to make cuts, and indeed the funding part of recalibration is second and closely tied to the educational findings.
This recalibration will be the second such effort in three years. In 2017, the Legislature triggered it early to grapple with the education funding crisis. Some lawmakers had hoped the consultants would return a model that delivered the “equitable and adequate” education required for less money than the state was spending. Currently, Wyoming has one of the richest funding models, in terms of per-pupil spending, in the nation.
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The findings did not find an equal but cheaper option. In fact, the consultants hired in 2017 told lawmakers that their proposed model would cost tens of millions more than the funding system the state currently uses. The report was a disappointment to some in the Legislature, but it was vindication for educators and legislators who had warned that the process could end in the state being told to pay more and that recalibration isn’t an avenue for cuts anyway.
Despite recalibration happening just three years ago, the state’s top education attorney in the Attorney General’s Office told lawmakers earlier this year that they’d need to conduct the process again in 2020, as is required.
In the three years since the most recent recalibration effort, the education funding crisis has settled to less of a boil and more of a simmer. The most recent estimates, released before October revenue forecasts were made public, suggested the deficit was around $250 million. Still, lawmakers have suggested in recent weeks that they’ll be eyeing cuts across Wyoming’s budget when the Legislature meets early next year.
Currently, Wyoming’s education system — and, indeed, much of the state in general — is heavily reliant on the mineral industries to fund both its day-to-day operations and the construction of its schools. The current funding model, which costs around $1.5 billion a year, sets dollar amounts for every detail of an education system, from teachers’ salaries to the cost of school supplies.
The model is then applied to districts, and each district’s funding is determined by a calculation of how many students are enrolled. So larger districts, like Natrona County, are given substantially more money for substantially more students than, say, the Dubois district.
At the end of recalibration, the consultants will typically present a report to lawmakers. Those legislators, in turn, may take that report and turn it into legislation to be brought to the full Legislature. Or, as they did in 2017, they’ll set aside the report and continue on with the current model.
In the latter case, the model still needs tending to. In order to remain cost-based, the model includes an inflation adjustment. Lawmakers for years did not fund that adjustment. They did last year, however, and will consider doing so again this year, to the tune of $20 million.