The Joint Interim Education Committee met Monday and Tuesday to begin their interim topic work.
The committee explored K-12 school finance on Monday with a review of the system, the legislature’s requirements to fund education, and a history of the recalibration process.
Repeatedly, members of the committee expressed relief at rebounding oil prices. The price of crude inching ever-closer to levels not seen since pre-COVID-19 has helped reduce the structural deficit facing Wyoming public education funding from $300 million per year to roughly $270 million.
Thankfully, even as legislators examined a better-than-expected economic picture for our state, the committee still recognized the need to address the massive funding shortfall threatening public education. They discussed the need to address adequate, reliable funding for both operations and school capital construction.
Changes to ad valorem tax collections deadlines have further complicated an already complicated system which will impact funding for school capital construction projects. Senator Charlie Scott noted that what may end up happening, and in some cases is already happening, is that the funding for school capital construction is cutting into the dollars allotted for school operations. His proposed remedy was a constitutional amendment that would revert the funding for school capital construction to the system that was in place prior to the Campbell decisions. Districts would be responsible for raising revenue for their capital construction projects. This bill would cause significant equity issues for those locals with low property tax valuations. In contrast, those districts with high property tax valuations would be able to afford above and beyond what they need. The proposal was defeated by a tie vote of 7 to 7.
Related to education funding, there was significant discussion regarding the latest federal education relief funds, the ARP/ESSER III funds. The federal relief package would allocate roughly $300 million to local and state education agencies. While some of these funds are earmarked for specific uses such as addressing learning loss, social/emotional health support, and summer programs, local districts would have broad discretion over how most of these dollars could be put to use. District award amounts for all three relief packages can be found here https://wyoleg.gov/InterimCommittee/2021/04-20210719ESSERAwardsandSEAUsesMemotoJEICJuly2021.pdf.
While these dollars would help buffer the shortfall in revenue and help sustain the state’s savings account until the proper corrective economic policy could be implemented, the committee hinted that Wyoming may not accept this final round of aid. Attached to these funds is a maintenance of effort and maintenance of equity (MOE). The discussion focused on Wyoming’s unique education funding model and how our funding model could raise issues regarding the MOEs. The MOE attached to these dollars requires the state to maintain K-12 funding at a level equal to the state’s average funding for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019.
The unknown variable that is causing concern is the state of Wyoming’s economy. While recovering oil prices are once again benefiting the state, much discussion has focused on the implications of the Biden administration’s proposed moratorium of drilling and fracking on federal lands. Even though there is substantial evidence that this proposed halting of drilling and fracking on federal lands will not negatively impact drilling efforts in Wyoming, the rhetoric continued throughout the committee’s discussion on this topic. Essentially, if Wyoming’s economy were to decline and the state could not meet the federal maintenance of effort, they would be forced to raise revenue by any means necessary, including raising taxes, to meet the MOE. The legislature is so averse to investing in students and continuing to fund education at previously established levels that it would rather potentially decline $300 million in federal assistance for our schools than pursue economic policies that are already necessary to fix the state’s economy and bring stability to Wyoming citizens. Furthermore, if the legislature were to pursue policies of capping special education or transportation, they may also be at risk of violating the federal MOE requirements. Discussion is planned to continue around this subject as more information becomes available from the state’s interactions with federal agencies.
One of the topics that received substantial public comment and was of great interest to the committee was that of K-3 reading. Wyoming has consistently outperformed the national average for the percent of students proficient and advanced in reading and language arts for both 4th and 8th grade. Wyoming students’ reading and language arts NAEP scores are some of the best in the nation. However, it should be noted that there is a substantial effort to increase students’ performance in these areas across the nation. A student’s ability to read proficiently by 3rd grade is one of the most substantial predictors for future education, and in turn, economic outcomes. The United States is falling behind other developed nations in terms of these scores, and there is broad recognition that work needs to be done to bolster these scores, including in the state of Wyoming.
The topic of K-3 reading, assessments, and interventions, saw significant engagement from the public as well as legislators. Their discussion on this topic focused on a few key areas. First, ensuring that our teachers are well-equipped to teach reading to students. Second, addressing issues such as dyslexia and whether our educators effectively identify students in need of intervention. Finally, there was a discussion around how reading should be taught: Should educators utilize phonics or whole language approaches? The topic has been slated to be continued at the next meeting of the Interim Education Committee. The brief on this topic is available here https://wyoleg.gov/InterimCommittee/2021/04-2021071920210701_ReadingAssessmentInterventionProgramIssueBrief_FINAL.pdf.
The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for September 8-9 in Casper. While no agenda has been published yet, the K-3 reading topic is slated to be discussed. If you are a K-3 educator interested in attending the committee meeting and potentially providing testimony, please reach out to the WEA’s Government Relations Director Tate Mullen at email@example.com or (307) 286-3096 for details.
Finally, several bill drafts were proposed and passed. The committee and LSO will work to provide bill drafts by the committee’s next meeting. These bills include:
Providing $100 million endowments for programmatic/block grant community college funding
K-3 reading assessments, screenings, professional development, and interventions
Increasing allowable percentage for districts’ reserves
Hathaway-type scholarship for adult learners