Wyoming Liberty Group
“It’s complicated!” That is how one of our legislators – who has advanced degrees in scientific fields – recently described our K-12 education funding model. It was a remarkable understatement, made during debate about reducing the cost of the system. We face huge projected funding shortfalls which require cost reductions.
K-12 funding is based on Wyoming’s constitution and numerous, lengthy lawsuits, all ultimately resolved by the supreme court. Further, K-12 education is governed by state statutes including Title 21 which alone is 500+ pages. Statute 21-2-203(a) even states, “The school finance system… is extremely complex…” And, of course, we can’t forget federal law like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
A computer spreadsheet-model, built by outside consultants, is used by the Wyoming Department of Education staff to compute the amounts involved. It contains extensive programming and thirty separate, interconnected worksheets covering all - presumably - necessary components of quality education. Those costs run the gamut from the routine (utilities) to the esoteric (hold-harmless calculations).
These costs are computed for approximately 90,000 students in 350 schools in 48 school districts with 17,000+ staff. They all add up to $1.5 billion per year, not counting building construction or major maintenance.
This bristling array of complexity is manned by armies of professional education-industrial personnel some of whom are focused on maintaining and expanding their domain. The 17,000 paid school staff mentioned above include full-time finance professionals and administrators. They are reinforced by auxiliary forces such as government agencies and special-interests including labor unions, trade associations and consultants. All these troops profit from and, therefore, encourage the complexity.
Struggling to manage and pay for all this is a thin red line of ninety part-time citizen legislators who are charged with both Wyoming’s fiscal solvency and “total control” (according to the supreme court) of K-12 education: two increasingly irreconcilable responsibilities.
These few individuals take time away from their real lives to devote to the legislature. Serving in the legislature has often been compared with having a second full-time job because a typical legislator’s work day can easily be 12 hours long or more. They have limited time to tackle the hundreds of issues brought before the legislature.
On education matters, leadership is provided by two Education Committees, one each in the House and Senate. The House committee has nine members. Two members have just six years of legislative experience (not necessarily on education issues), three members have four years and four are freshmen. The senate education committee has five members whose legislative experience, individually, are one freshman followed by members having 28, 14, 6 and 2 years.
Furthermore, they don’t just work on education; they along with other legislators must also deal with complex issues such as healthcare and taxation. Their challenge is therefore to wield “total control” effectively over a system that everyone admits is “extremely complex.”
“Total control” has been a problem for Wyoming. Our K-12 education averages $16,000 per student per year, 40 percent above the national average with above average numbers of administration and support personnel.
Facing revenue shortfalls for education of $360 million to $400 million per year, the legislature is struggling with when and how much to cut costs. Every time they propose ideas, they encounter fierce resistance. When one legislator said, “we’re not here to discuss whether to cut, we’re here to ask your advice on what to cut”, the response from certain school-district leaders was that they will sue unless cuts meet the legal definitions of “cost-based” or “having rational basis”. What’s the legislature to do? They’ve floated many reasonable ideas, given how their hands are tied. Some of the ideas have made it to the final stage prior to enactment, but there’s much debate still to come and the rancor they face is tremendous.
Our K-12 education system is too complicated. It is unmanageable. Years of centralized, Soviet-style planning has resulted in excessive costs and mediocre results. This didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be repaired overnight, but the answer is not to double-down on management of education with full-time legislators and legions of support staff. Rather, what’s needed is serious reform. Break up the system into locally-manageable units that give parents real choices. The result must neither bankrupt the state nor hobble the economy so that so that our children must leave Wyoming in order to support themselves.