The Wyoming legislative session is scheduled to begin in less than a week. With roughly four weeks to draft and agree upon a state budget for the next two years, as well as the other myriad issues likely to come before them, it promises to be a very busy time in Cheyenne.
While the budget is certain to take up a great deal of the time available, I anticipate discussions to extend beyond just what to spend where. I expect that our legislators will be forced to wrestle with deeper issues facing our state. Specifically, I expect that our legislators will begin talking seriously about education funding in our state. As I have said before, our state’s current funding picture is not sustainable. This is especially so when approximately 40 percent of our state expenditures are treated as if they cannot be questioned. Wyoming’s total biennial budget amounts to a little above $5 billion in spending. Of that, about $3 billion flows through the general fund and budget reserve account, while another $2.2 billion goes to education funding.
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Historically, education funding has been treated as a separate matter from the rest of state finances. This is largely a result of a series of Wyoming Supreme Court cases known generally as the Campbell cases. Without going into detail, in these cases the Wyoming Supreme Court gave instructions to the Legislature on how education must be treated under the Wyoming Constitution. After four lawsuits, the Legislature finally built an education funding system that met the Supreme Court’s standards and, since then, has been understandably reluctant to change it for fear of another misstep and another Court case sending them back for more revisions.
However, the time has come for the Legislature to take a closer look at our education funding system. The way it currently works, education funding is adjusted at least every two years to account for inflation and at least every five years to account for changes in student population and costs of providing instruction. The impact of this process is that education funding has risen, largely without question, since the system was declared constitutional. Legislators have been reluctant to meddle with funding amounts, and school districts have no problem finding more places to apply funds.
Our current state revenue picture is pushing education funding to the forefront. With the rest of state government under pressure to find cost efficiencies, similar questions are being asked of the education system. Are there better or more efficient ways we can be spending our money? Is it time that we examine whether our funding system has kept up with new developments? Has our reluctance to make changes put us at a disadvantage compared to other states? According to some studies, Wyoming is beginning to lag behind other states when it comes to innovations in education. Given our small population, Wyoming has the potential to be nimble and an innovator when it comes to education. We certainly have our unique challenges, but we also have the opportunity to react more quickly than some larger states. The advantage of a small population is that our institutions are also smaller, which makes reforms and advances easier. If our Legislature remains unwilling to tackle fundamental education issues, however, this advantage does us no good.
One thing all of us can agree upon is that we want a great education system for Wyoming. As the husband of an educator and the father of two children making their way through Wyoming schools, I especially want an education system that is on the cutting edge and that supports (and compensates) our teachers well. My concern is that our current system has not substantially changed since the last of the Campbell cases. With perpetually rising education costs and stagnant state tax revenues, it is only a matter of time before we hit a fiscal cliff. If we do, our education system will not be immune. I want our state education system to lead in innovation and provide our kids, teachers and communities the best possible results. If that is going to happen, it is time for us to start taking a careful look at all aspects of our state education system – from funding to standards to instructional methods – and make sure that all are operating at maximum capacity. If Wyoming really does hit a fiscal wall in a few years, education will suffer along with the rest of state government. We must act soon to avoid a crisis in the future.
Khale Lenhart is an attorney in Cheyenne and a former Chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.