Wyoming Liberty Group

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Foamy Beer, Foamy Soda

Many people like beer, lots of people like soda. Beer and soda always have foam, but it’s the beverage we want, not the foam. What does that have to do with Wyoming K-12 education?

In education, what we want (beverage) is instruction. Everything else is foam. On Message, Inc. found this to be true in a recent poll they conducted on behalf of Wyoming Liberty Group. Seventy-three percent of respondents favored the idea of a law that requires 80% of all education funding be spent in the classroom.

Given such interest, we decided to see how Wyoming’s school spending is actually divided using the Wyoming Department of Education’s Statistical Report Series No. 3. But before looking at the numbers, here’s how WDE classifies costs. The Wyoming School Budgeting, Accounting and Reporting Manual says, “Instruction includes the activities dealing directly with the interaction between teachers and students.” In other words, the WDE’s definition of instruction means the classroom spending referred to in the poll.

Do Wyoming schools spend an overall average 80 percent of operating costs directly on instruction? No, not even close. Overall, spending on instruction averaged just 60 percent, not 80 percent, in school year 2014-15. This means 40 percent was spent on everything else (administration, support and other kinds of overhead.) The entire system must step up its game because there’s way too much foam on top of our beverage.

The good news is not all school districts are not the same. We reorganized WDE’s data a bit to look within the overall average and show you Wyoming’s least and most foamy.

Graph 1 presents the top ten least-foamy school districts in Wyoming based on which has the highest five-year average percentage of operating costs devoted to instruction. In the graph, “ADM” means average daily membership, a calculation of student body size.

Converse #1 in Douglas is the most consistent and has pushed nearly 70 percent of spending into the classroom over the long term. However, even this top performer has a little way to go. Natrona #1 has a five-year average of 64 percent. Laramie #1 squeaks into the top ten, but they’ve got to push their number up nearly 20 percent to meet the expectations from the survey.

Perhaps the most interesting question is why the biggest school districts don’t have much higher percentages than they do. We’ve heard many arguments in the past about the advantages of economies of scale. If they exist, shouldn’t they be really obvious?

Graph 2 shows the districts which seem to display weaker stewardship of taxpayer money by devoting less to kids in the classroom. Over five years, Uinta #6 has focused barely half of their funding on the kids. Where can it be going that is more important? All these districts can do better.

Graph #3 turns to a more positive note and shows those districts whose school year 2014-15 percentages were most improved over their 2010-11 marks. Change is possible and hopefully superintendents in those districts get some credit for their efforts. Niobrara #1 posted a percentage nearly 14 percent better than five years ago and Uinta #6 seems to be moving in the right direction.

Naturally, all school districts are different, but they also have many similarities. With collaboration and focus, they can all move toward better meeting citizens’ expectations about education spending. So let’s please have more beverage and less foam.

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Wednesday, 23 August 2017
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