The Wyoming Legislature is buzzing about an impending funding crisis for K-12 education.
Bills that would impose severe funding cuts, prescribe to local school boards how cuts are to be implemented and create a special committee to revamp the funding formula are making their way through the House and Senate.
Constitutional amendments that would severely restrict and muzzle the judicial branch in matters related to school funding are also popular with the 2017 Legislature.
If passed, these bills will cause hundreds or even thousands of job losses and fundamentally change public education in Wyoming. Programs will be eliminated, class sizes will increase significantly and our students will be the ones who suffer.
Most taxpayers and newer members of the legislature are completely unaware that the funding issues we now face are a direct result of our Legislature’s deliberate policy decisions to remove tax revenue explicitly earmarked for K-12 education from the School Foundation Account.
In 2006, legislation diverted $505 million earmarked for deposit in the School Foundation Account to establish the Hathaway Student Scholarship Fund and the Excellence in Higher Education Endowment Fund. Over the next several years, this account was used to fund nearly $350 million in capital projects and make other transfers for various purposes, including a transfer to the Wyoming Retirement System.
Then in 2009, legislation was passed to sweep all funds in excess of $100 million at the end of each year from the School Foundation Account to the School Capital Construction Account. Over $1.3 billion has been stripped out of the account based on that legislation alone.
The opposite of saving for a rainy day, the Legislature’s actions intercepted and removed a grand total of $2.7 billion of taxpayer dollars, plus accumulated interest, from the School Foundation Account, assuring this fund would be nearly empty when a downturn in the economy occurred.
Certainly, I support funding for higher education, school building construction and a well-funded retirement system.
The problem is that the Legislature diverted taxpayer money, levied for the specific purpose of operating K-12 schools, effectively bankrupting the account.
Maybe now is the time for the Wyoming Legislature to consider issuing bonds to restore the balance of the School Foundation Account. In addition, existing funding streams can be used to increase revenues to operate public schools. The recently published K-12 Education Funding Deficit White Paper authored by the Wyoming Legislative Service Office identifies a 1 percent statutory diversion of severance taxes and a spending policy modification to allow a higher level of investment income to flow back into the School Foundation Account, which would provide roughly $180 million annually.
A broad approach, including a combination of bonding, diversions, spending policy changes and other measures would balance the K-12 operating budget.
The education funding crisis for K-12 schools didn’t just happen. It was designed by the past actions of the Wyoming Legislature. We must face the fact that a very significant amount of funding, specifically levied for the support and maintenance of schools, was used for entirely different purposes than intended.
Now, let’s get on with the business of funding K-12 education appropriately so we can fulfill our responsibilities to Wyoming students and continue delivering increasingly excellent results in classrooms across the state.