CHEYENNE – With the state facing a projected revenue shortfall that translates into less money for its K-12 education system, lawmakers took initial steps Wednesday to explore ways to use Wyoming’s education fund more efficiently.
After discussing House Bill 40 at length both Monday and Wednesday, members of the House Education Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill. As written, it would create a select committee of six senators and six representatives to examine avenues for recalibrating the state’s K-12 education funding model.
During Monday’s meeting, Kari Eakins, chief policy officer for the Wyoming Department of Education, told lawmakers that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow supports adding three ex-officio members of the committee, including one from her department.
Eakins also reiterated the superintendent’s desire to include analysis of the state’s basket of goods in recalibration efforts. The basket of goods includes 10 different content areas that must be taught in Wyoming under state law.
While a recalibration effort is required every five years in Wyoming, the state’s basket of goods has only been updated once since 1997. Eakins said a reexamination of the basket would allow the state to have teaching standards that are relevant well into future.
“This is a very difficult subject to delve into,” Eakins said. “We assume that if we do this now, it won’t happen for another 15 or 20 years, so we hope it will be put into consideration.”
Cindy DeLancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, reiterated that sense of urgency Wednesday evening, right before the committee approved the bill.
“Now is the time to have a conversation to use recalibration as a vehicle to assess the basket of goods,” she said, speaking on behalf of Jay Harnack, superintendent of Sublette County School District 1. “If we continue to do the same thing, we’ll continue to have the same outcomes.”
Legislators on the committee said they are open to reexamining the basket of goods, but some wondered whether those efforts should be done before recalibrating the state’s funding model – an idea that Eakins said was fairly in line with Balow’s thoughts.
“We don’t know what exactly the best time is, but we would hope that we would make sure we like the basket before we ask for the price of it,” Eakins said.
Rep. Landen Brown, R-Cheyenne, said it was critical for the state to look at the basket of goods in the process.
“If we’re not examining the basket of goods, we’re not doing our jobs,” Brown said Monday. “I don’t think it’s such a horrible idea to be more prescriptive in legislation. ... I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to put something in there to say, ‘let’s make sure you’re re-examining the basket of goods.’”
He declined, however, to push for adding such language to the bill, because as he put it Wednesday, “I’m tired of failing on amendments.”
Others were supportive of reexamining the basket of goods, but they cautioned against taking on both endeavors simultaneously. Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said it would take more than an interim session to properly study those standards.
“This is an enormous undertaking, and I’m honestly thrilled that the superintendent wants to have us think about it, but not in this process here, not in a statutorily required recalibration of the school funding model that we’ll be starting right now,” Connolly said.
A few hours after Gov. Mark Gordon kicked off the legislative session with his State of the State address Monday, legislative leaders from both parties spoke of the need to reexamine Wyoming’s education funding model. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said the state has long enjoyed having one of the nation’s best education systems while also having one of its most lax tax structures.
“Ten years from now, we will not have both of those things, and that’s a challenge,” Rothfuss said.
In reference to Gordon’s call to find the proper education funding model, the Senate Minority Leader said he and other lawmakers have been looking at that issue for the past decade without much success.
“What it really comes down to is this: If you want small class sizes and you want good teachers, you have to pay a pretty substantial amount of money,” Rothfuss said. “That’s what it takes to have excellence in education, instead of mediocrity that we’ve seen in a lot of other states around the country.”
Rothfuss said he hopes the Legislature will couple economic and revenue diversification in its funding efforts moving forward.
If the bill gains approval, it wouldn’t be the first time a select committee was established to explore how Wyoming could change its funding setup. During the 2018 budget session, lawmakers rejected a change to the funding model proposed after meetings of a similar select committee.
Now that the bill has passed out of the Education Committee, HB 40 will return to the full House of Representatives for up to three votes before it could cross over to the Senate.