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One Billion Smackaroonies

What do we do when we encounter a luxurious buffet but are on a diet? We carefully take only the permitted amount of each allowed item, right? And then we consciously take a smidgen more of each. Soon the plate is overloaded (and maybe we go back for seconds – or thirds!) Is that what’s happened in Wyoming K-12 education over the last decade?

Take a look at Graph 1. The blue columns are taken from a September 2016 Legislative Service Office memo to the Joint Education Interim Committee. The orange columns are by Wyoming Liberty Group.

smackaroonies graph 1

They show the differences year by year between what Wyoming’s various consultants said the cost-basis of the K-12 basket of educational goods should be (evidence based model) and what the legislature actually funded (statutory model.) In every year, the legislature provided more funding than recommended; the cumulative excess through 2017-18 will be nearly a billion dollars.

The evidence-based model is the one originally blessed by the Wyoming Supreme Court in 2008 after much legal wrangling. Its determinants were many, but the explicit intent was ‘proper education’ for a Wyoming child is to be “the best that we can do” and the legislature must define and specify what that is. Campbell County School Dist. v. State, 907 P.2d 1238, 1269 (Wyo. 1995). (Campbell I). In addition, funding of districts is to be based upon what the state has determined a particular component should cost to deliver in each district. Campbell Cnty. Sch. Dist. v. State, 181 P.3d 43, 56 (Wyo. 2008) (Campbell IV)

We know, because the Court approved the evidence based model, that the education consultants had taken all the determinants into account. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume they also did so each time they updated it on behalf of the legislature. It’s also reasonable to assume the legislature recognized that “The definition of a proper education is not static and necessarily will change.” Campbell I, 907 P.2d at 1274.

However, it does not seem reasonable to assume the consultants could simply be wrong about total necessary costs by six to eight percent each and every year for ten years. And it does not seem reasonable the definition of “a proper education appropriate for the times” Campbell I, 907 P.2d at 1279 would change so dramatically every year. Thus, while the legislature was within its rights to authorize the amounts they did, we are within our rights as citizens to question the rationale behind their actions.

We are also within our rights to ask what we received in exchange for that largesse. The amounts spent and who received them are documented in the state’s public records, but what real value was received by students and taxpayers? There is little objectively measurable. Things which are, such as standardized test-scores NAEP and ACT, remain far below the state’s goals and show little benefit from the money spent.

If those funds had not been spent so freely in the golden, glory days of gas, oil and coal bonanzas, two things would be different: 1) education budgets would not now be so swollen making looming budget cuts less painful and, 2) more savings might well be in our coffers to blunt that pain. One billion additional smackaroonies in the bank would be really comforting to have. Now, though, we need realistic solutions to the challenges of providing quality education to Wyoming children within very real revenue constraints.

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Tuesday, 23 May 2017
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