Wyoming's Equitable Education, Too Expensive?

Feb 2, 2018

Ten months and $800,000 later, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration has completed its in-depth look at how Wyoming finances education. Members of APA Consulting, who were tasked with examining the equity and adequacy of the school funding model, told lawmakers the state’s current approach works but pointed out areas for improvement. Despite a recommendation to spend more, lawmakers are opting to spend less.

This is the fourth-time lawmakers have embarked on the process of re-examining how education is financed in the last 12 years, and each time the conclusion is about the same. Wyoming’s rugged and remote geography makes education expensive.

There are small schools and big schools; rural schools and urban schools. And given that, the state does a good job of making sure kids from Casper to Claremont have access to a solid education. Mark Fermanich, from APA Consulting, told lawmakers that after completing an equity study, “we found that the system here is pretty equitable.” Fermanich said that basically means, “whether you live in a wealthier or poorer region, you’re spending the same on education.”

But APA told lawmakers that Wyoming should increase salaries for teachers if they want to keep talent in the state. They also recommended stronger funding for at-risk students and English language learners. They suggested a new way of calculating funding for small schools.

Ultimately, the committee declined to create legislation from APA’s recommended model for two main reasons: it’s not so different from what the state already does, and it costs more.

By not following the recommendations, the committee chose to save the state money. And to further reduce costs, it charged the Wyoming Department of Education with improving spending guidelines for transportation and special education.

Committee co-chair Albert Sommers anticipated there would still be lawmakers looking for further cuts during the upcoming budget session.

“I think there will still be a discussion about whether we are overfunding education; whether we can afford it,” said Sommers.  

In fact, it came up the next day when the revenue committee met in Cheyenne. Some lawmakers expressed concerned about generating more money for an education system they think is too expensive. Sheridan Senator Kinskey was among them.

“In 2015, we spent $16,000 per student. There are only four states in the union that spent more per pupil per year,” said Kinskey. “So, we are spending more than 45 other states in the union.”

Kinskey raised that Wyoming’s neighbor Idaho spends roughly $10,000 less. If Wyoming pays significantly more for education, it should see better results, he said. Kinskey pointed to Wyoming's 8th-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which are on par with Idaho.

“Wyoming ranked 12th. The score was 269. Ok. Idaho ranked 14th. Essentially the same score. The states are tenths or hundreds apart,” explained Kinskey.

On 8th-grade reading, Wyoming does closely resemble its neighbors. But to take a deeper look at the data: on 8th-grade math, as well as 4th-grade math and reading, Wyoming is ahead of both its neighbors and the national average.

Some, like Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, push back and say Wyoming is getting enough bang for its buck. He pointed out to his fellow committee members that Idaho has more issues with equity. The Wyoming Supreme Court requires Wyoming schools to receive equitable funding, and the small and more remote schools are more expensive per student.

So then, what exactly does Senator Kinskey want as far as NAEP results?

“You know, I’m not even going to answer that,” said Kinskey. “That question just doesn’t make any sense to me. You want me to say I want [a score of] 350 or something? I’m not going to say that.”   

While Kinskey doesn’t have a specific goal in mind, he said Superintendent Jillian Balow has a good plan and is setting benchmarks for improving educational outcomes.

Her attitude about the state’s progress is reasoned and optimistic.

“If bang for the buck means every student graduates from high school and is a success in life, that’s not something we’ll ever achieve,” said Balow. “But if bang for the buck means investing wisely and seeing results like we should statistically be seeing them, then we are getting our bang for the buck.”

Wyoming’s NAEP scores have shown steady improvement. But Balow said calculating Wyoming’s progress requires an examination of multiple measures, like the state's increasing graduation rates and ACT scores. She also pointed to the 2018 report from Edweek, a national news source on education, that ranked Wyoming first in the west and seventh in the nation when it comes to education quality.

As lawmakers prepare for more conversations about education during the 2018 budget session, consensus on what achieving a bang means still needs to be resolved.