Wyoming Liberty Group
Wyoming’s constitution mandates K-12 education be universal, free of charge and efficient 1. However, the concept of efficiency is so inconvenient it was scarcely mentioned in the course of more than twenty years of litigation about K-12 funding. The result is the mammoth and terrifically expensive education system we now have.
Efficiency often simply means maximum benefit in return for minimum cost. Is our K-12 system efficient? No, it is not. Here’s why.
One of the benefits obtained through Wyoming’s statewide education system is measurement of student performance on standardized tests such as the ACT and NAEP. Those are two national standardized tests with long history and credibility. Wyoming’s average scores on them are no better than the low national average and, more importantly, leave the majority of kids below the level of proficiency they need to be career or college ready. Wyoming Liberty Group (WLG) has previously reported on Wyoming’s modest (at best) performance on these tests. Indeed, Wyoming’s lead education consultant reports our kids should be doing better. Accordingly, it is easy for unbiased observers to conclude we are not getting the required “maximum benefit” part of efficiency.
Are we at least getting these non-maximum benefits at minimum cost? Regrettably, no.
Graph 1 shows the ratio of the number of K-12 students to the number of all employed staff since 2000. For the entire time, Wyoming had an unusually low figure compared to surrounding states and the national average. In fact, in 2012, the most recent year for which comparison data is available, Wyoming ranked second lowest in the nation. Things don’t appear to have changed recently either because Wyoming’s ratio for 2014-15 was 5.5. This means Wyoming has many, many more adults in schools to educate and manage students than other states do – states which score as well as Wyoming does on standardized tests. We know those adults don’t work for free. Consequently, this is extremely costly to Wyoming taxpayers; our cost per pupil per year is 40 percent above the national average. And 83 percent of that cost is salaries and benefits.
Ideally the majority of those paid staff people would be teachers so kids get the individualized attention that is often touted as a goal of the system. Sadly, it is not the case. Look at Graph 2 which is based on data through 2012, the most recent comparison data. It shows that significantly less than half of Wyoming’s K-12 staff were certified teachers. Moreover, Wyoming’s percentage was much lower than those of neighboring states and the national average. In other words, the large majority of people historically employed in Wyoming’s K-12 education system have not been teachers in classrooms. Recent data show no change: teachers were 45 percent of staff in 2014-15, according to Wyoming Department of Education reports. Thus, Wyoming has a lot more administration, support and overhead staff than teaching staff.
What does this mean? The simplest conclusion is Wyoming’s school districts (primarily the larger ones since they have the biggest effect on the averages) are heavily bureaucratic, inefficient and costly.
Wyoming’s K-12 system is constitutionally required to be efficient but, in spite of lavish funding, it has only produced low to average results on measurable benchmarks over an entire decade. Those low results put our children’s and Wyoming’s future at risk. The high cost puts our financial wellbeing at risk. So efficiency isn’t just a legality; it’s key; it’s smart. Let’s work together to find the way to better educational outcomes at sustainable cost.
1 Wyoming Constitution Article 7 Section 9 Taxation for schools.