Wyoming State Legislature update – Education meetings
by Albert Sommers, House District #20 Representative
September 29, 2016
Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting after three days of education meetings in Casper on September 19, 20, and 21.
On the 19th and 20th, the Joint Education Committee met and discussed the University of Wyoming College of Education’s Education Initiative, K12 school finance, the Hathaway Scholarship, medically necessary student placements, distance education, alignment of public education, and student digital information privacy. On the 21st, the Select Committee on Education Accountability met with the Joint Education Committee to discuss a new accountability system for alternative schools, teacher and leader accountability, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the development of a new state assessment, and a report on the progress of schools with respect to the accountability model. I will touch upon only a few of these topics.
Funding for K12 education is expected to take a severe hit with the economic downturn in Wyoming. Most of the operations portion of K12 education is paid for through a state wide mill levy on property, and then is equalized between all 48 school districts through a complex funding model. When the state of Wyoming went through a series of lawsuits several years ago, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Wyoming’s Constitution mandates education funding be equal and adequate throughout Wyoming. Every five years, the Legislature hires a consultant who develops a school funding model that meets the constitutional mandate of the court. I participated in that effort last year, and the Legislature decided to continue with our current funding model, which provides more dollars than the consultant’s constitutional model. The legislative model is projected to supply about $40 million dollars more to K12 education in 2016/17 than the consultant’s model would have. This seems like a lot of money, until you realize that the entire projected expenditure for K12 education is a little over $1.5 billion dollars a year. The difference between what the Legislature provides for K12 operations and our constitutional mandate is less than 3% of the budget.
The school funding model allows for an annual inflationary adjustment, if the legislature deems that cost pressures exist in K12 education. Two years ago, the Legislature provided an inflationary adjustment called an External Cost Adjustment (ECA), but last session it was pared back, when the Legislature mandated a 1% cut to education in 2016/17, and a 1.4% cut in 2017/18. At this meeting we received preliminary information from districts that their enrollment had stagnated, and had actually dropped a few hundred students across the state. This drop in enrollment will result in decreased K12 funding from projections made last session, because last session’s expenditure projections were based upon a 1% increase in enrollment. Based upon this scenario, our committee chose to recommend reducing the 1.4% cut to 1%, through an adjustment to the ECA. I have fought hard to preserve education funding in Wyoming, because I believe it is the most essential service government provides its citizens. Without a quality K12 educational structure we cannot attract new business, create good workers, or produce good citizens. As we see updated revenue projections in October, the debate over school funding will only intensify.
Not only are we seeing decreased revenue from traditional sources like oil, natural gas, and coal, but our state savings accounts are generating less revenue. Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon explained to the committee that by 2019, Hathaway Scholarship Fund expenses could exceed its income, which would result in an erosion of the Fund’s corpus. This is a scenario that we cannot allow to happen. Treasurer Gordon believes that a combination of tightening our scholarship expenses, coupled with a change in our investment strategy, will make the popular scholarship fund sound once again. The committee will continue to look at revisions to the Hathaway Scholarship at our next meeting in November. Changes could include raising ACT requirements, creating different scholarship levels, and indexing the rigor of classes across the state. In my opinion, we must be very careful how we change scholarship requirements because they play a significant role in determining what course work is provided to high school students.
On the 21st, the Select Accountability Committee heard an update from Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow about the recently enacted federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Wyoming will have to change its school accountability model to comply with this act. The biggest change is that Wyoming will have to add an element to its model that will gauge how well schools are educating English Language Learners, which typically come from the nation’s immigrant population. The other proposed change to the accountability model would add career readiness to the Readiness Indicator, which currently looks only at college readiness. A substantial number of Wyoming students do not seek a four year degree, but it is important that high schools prepare these students for successful careers. We need a strong career technical education program in this state, and we need to reward schools for providing these programs.
If you have any questions or comments, I can be reached at email@example.com