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Wyoming School Choices Few and Far Between

by Keith Phucas

CHEYENNE – Nearly seven years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana boasts the country’s most ambitious school voucher plan that would pay for students to attend public, private or charter schools of their choice.

When the voucher program began four years ago, it benefitted only low-income students in New Orleans, but by 2013, all of Louisiana students would become eligible for the program.

The voucher legislation, signed into law in April by Gov. Bobby Jindal, is viewed by school-choice advocates as a huge leap forward and the latest in a growing national trend to give families the freedom to send their children to a school they choose.

But the progress of school choice has lagged in most other states, including Wyoming, which offers very limited educational choice and has a law that makes starting an alternative school difficult.

Kari Cline, Wyoming Association of Public Charter Schools’ executive director, knows firsthand how sluggish the pace of establishing those schools has been.

“It is slow, painfully slow, but we have some momentum,” she said.

According to the Friedman Foundation for School Choice, 18 states and the District of Columbia currently provide private school choice through vouchers or the tax code.

The school vouchers concept, allowing parents to use public funding to pay for their children’s tuition at a private school, was first proposed in 1955 by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, a long-time champion of freedom and liberty.

Milwaukee created the first school voucher program in 1990 for low-income families.

Partly to blame, Cline said, is the state’s law governing charter schools that discourages organizations from applying to open schools in Wyoming.

“Although we have a charter school law, it’s pretty poor,” she said.

In fact, the law gives local school boards sole approval authority for charter school applicants, which stacks the deck in favor of the existing school system. So instead of waging a “political battle” with the school board, Cline said, charter interests move on to more “charter-friendly” states.

“That is a very big inhibitor to starting a charter school,” she said.

Cline, a Cheyenne resident, said other states typically utilize more than one local board or authorizing body to consider charter applications.

Six years ago, Laramie County School District 1 turned down its first applicant, Cheyenne Classical Academy, and the charter school official said the process was “very contentious.”

The fallout from the application process led to legislation in 2010 that mandated school districts work cooperatively with charter school applicants.

Other rejected charter schools eventually turned private, including Teton Science Schools, in Jackson. If that school and others had remained charters, no public school students could have been legally turned away, Cline said.

Prospective charter applicants and Wyoming newcomers, who are typically from more populated areas, are often surprised to learn the state’s has just 568,000 residents, according to U.S. Census figures. But even in Laramie County, the state’s most populous county, there are few alternatives to the public school system.

Three of four private schools in Cheyenne are not accredited with the state and do not require teacher certification. The county’s first and only approved charter school, Poder Academy, isn’t scheduled to open until August.

Proponents of school choice believe the more competition in education the better for fostering innovative teaching methods and improving student performance.

“Students (performing) at the top and bottom are not being well served at public schools,” Cline said, and claimed those students typically benefit the most in charter school settings.

Public education’s current emphasis on remediation and preparing students for standardized testing has put brighter students at a clear disadvantage.

“A lot of top-end kids are getting disengaged,” she said, putting them at risk of dropping out, which a Wyoming students can do at age 16 without parental permission.

The Wyoming Department of Education’s Federal Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, or “on time” graduation rate, for 2010-2011 was 79.7 percent, according to the state education department, leaving 20.3 percent that did not graduate as expected. In Laramie County School District 1, in Cheyenne, the graduation rate for 2010-2011 was nearly 72 percent.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in September 2005, the storm damaged most of New Orleans’ schools and a forced a mass exodus a families and their schoolchildren.

Left with ruined schools and few students, the cash strapped Orleans Parish School Board had no choice but to terminate contracts with all its teachers, according to “New Orleans-style Education Reform: A guide for cities: Lessons learned, 2004-2010.”

The Recovery School District, created two years before the hurricane to rescue students from failing schools, took over nearly all schools in the city following the disaster.

With old bureaucratic school policy suspended, New Orleans became a magnet for charter entrepreneurs who wrote their own school rules.

A 2011 analysis of standardized test scores in city schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO), showed most of the New Orleans’ independent charter schools had improved their students’ performance in reading and math at a faster rate than the city’s traditional public schools.

Short of a natural disaster, how could Wyoming open its educational system to free market principles that would compel all schools to compete for students?

School reform advocates suggest amending the charter school law for starters.

State Rep. Amy Edmonds, a Republican from Laramie County, has been an advocate for school choice and charter schools.

“We’ve been fighting this battle for six years,” Edmonds said. “Some get elected and feel it’s their job to protect the (public school) system, and others of us believe we should represent the taxpayers and families.”

She also recommended appointing “a separate authorizer” organization to evaluate charter applications and monitor the performance of those schools that are approved.

There are four charter schools in the state. Snowy Range Academy in Laramie (K-8th grade) is in its 11th year making it the oldest in Wyoming.

Fort Washakie Charter High School, located in Fort Washakie, began nine years ago and serves 9th through 12th grade students. However, the State Board of Education recently granted Fremont County School District 21’s request to make the high school part of the existing school district.

Laramie Montessori, a public charter school in Laramie, opened in the fall of 2011 for K-6th grade students.

Despite the school districts’ concerns about competition, Edmonds claims the charter schools have done little to diminish the dominance of public schools in those districts.

“They are powerful beyond belief,” the lawmaker said.

Rather than being strictly competitive, Cline said charter schools and traditional public schools in the same districts could work together to raise the overall quality of education.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the kids,” she said.

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