House, Senate offer competing school funding proposals

CHEYENNE — With roughly two weeks left in the Legislature’s general session, lawmakers in the state Senate and House of Representatives have been working on proposals to address a structural funding shortfall in Wyoming’s K-12 education system, with substantial differences between the chambers’ approaches.

Members in both chambers appear to agree that some level of cuts are necessary this year, with Wyoming’s K-12 education fund facing a projected $300 million deficit this biennium and an even larger shortfall in the long term. While the state still has more than $1 billion in its “rainy day” fund to offset that shortfall over the next few years, several lawmakers have argued some cuts need to be approved this session to avoid a fiscal cliff by the mid-2020s.

As of Friday, lawmakers in the House had amended their school recalibration bill, House Bill 173, to include approximately $68 million in cuts phased in over the next three years. After gaining two votes of support from the chamber, the bill awaits a final reading – and consideration of several amendments that could change that bottom-line figure – in the House this week.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s funding proposal, which gained final approval from the body last Thursday, would cut roughly $130 million, or about 7 percent, from the school finance model. Education-focused lawmakers in the Senate argue their proposal would not have an impact on teachers’ salaries, as the amended bill includes a “categorical grant” to exclude those from effects on the rest of the block grant model.

“We have heard chapter and verse, I think all of us and probably most of the members of the Senate, from the people we represent about what they perceive are excesses in the school system,” Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told reporters last Friday. “When we put it all together, we thought that overall, you could probably have a cut of up to 10% in the school funding and still be just fine.”

In the House, lawmakers have also discussed an accompanying proposal sponsored by the House Education Committee that would raise the statewide sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent once the state’s primary savings account falls below $650 million. The rainy-day fund currently contains roughly $1.3 billion, though it could fall below that $650 million threshold as soon as the 2023-24 biennium, according to legislative staff estimates.

Even if that conditional sales tax increase passes the House, where it will likely receive a final vote this week, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Many members of the upper chamber have been hesitant to support any tax increases until there is further examination of possible efficiencies in the K-12 education system.

“As a taxpayer, how do you plan around that?” Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, said of the conditional sales tax hike. “If you’re going to implement a tax, you need a certain date, (saying) it starts on this day. So, I’ve disliked that approach for years, because it’s uncertain, and you can’t build a tax policy around uncertainty.”

The Senate proposal would also increase the average class size from 16 students to 20 students per teacher. But rather than leading to a dramatic increase in class sizes, some on the Senate Education Committee argue that adjustment is merely to reflect the current reality in many classrooms.

“What we’re paying for is 16 (students) to one, but in my kids’ class, it’s like 25 students in the elementary school, so we’re paying for 16 but not getting it,” Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, told reporters Friday. “Then, the average … is 19 (students per teacher) across the state, so what we’re doing is readjusting the model to what’s actually happening.”

Although the Senate’s school funding proposal won final approval from the body by a 24-6 vote, a few senators were adamant that the 7-percent cut would have a dramatic impact on the state’s education system.

During floor debate prior to the bill’s passage Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, described Wyoming’s K-12 education system as “truly one of the best things we have in the state right now,” but he said the Senate proposal, if enacted by the Legislature, would be damaging and reduce the quality of education in the state.

“We can all say the sky’s not going to fall and that people are still going to be taught. We know that,” Rothfuss, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, said to his colleagues. “There’s going to be an education system. It’s just, do we want excellence, or do we want mediocrity?”

If the House’s education funding proposal gains final approval from the body this week, it will likely be the legislation that lawmakers will work on to bridge the difference between the two chambers, according to Scott, while his bill, SF 143, will act as a backup.

Although the House has shown some appetite for cuts – increasing them through amendments last week – leading lawmakers in the chamber have been hesitant to pursue cuts at the level seen in the Senate.

“I think it boils down to the question of do you think we should cut our way entirely out of this shortfall,” House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, told reporters earlier this month. “So, are you going to cut $150 million now and wring your hands another year, then cut another $100 million and wring your hands … or are you going to recognize that it should be a broad-based approach to attacking the problem?”

“Are we not going to tax at all to solve this problem?” Sommers added. “I think that’s the question. To me, I think we could do a little of all of those things and solve the problem, and not cut $150 million now and then cut $150 million in two years. Because I do believe a $300 million cut to education is too far.”

Hovering over all of the discussions of K-12 funding in the state are a series of Wyoming Supreme Court rulings, most recently the 1995 Campbell County ruling that stated a “lack of financial resources will not be an acceptable reason for failure to provide the best educational system” to students from Laramie to Sundance.

The mandate for the Wyoming Legislature to provide an equitable and adequate school system has often been a point emphasized by education advocates in the state. Although lawmakers have acknowledged that a new lawsuit could come from this year’s cuts, as well as any future reductions in spending, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee held that those cuts could be made without violating the court ruling.

“I suppose we’ll probably get sued by somebody, but I think the Supreme Court is going to be reasonable,” Scott said last Friday. “The one thing when reading the Supreme Court decision that really comes back to me is that they will not tolerate solutions that are based on the wealth of the districts. It has to be based on the wealth of the state as a whole.”

While lawmakers will be focused on the funding model through the remaining weeks of their session, there have been other K-12 education proposals brought in recent weeks. For example, a bill reforming the state’s statutes for the authorization of charter schools has been approved by the Senate and awaits consideration in the House.

Another bill, a cost-saving measure that would have set in motion a plan to consolidate the state’s 48 school districts into 24, was defeated by a 5-4 vote from the House Education Committee on Friday. While some legislators and education advocates raised concerns about the bill’s impact on rural public schools, its main sponsor, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said it was not his intention to hurt smaller schools.

“The people who tend to represent a lot of these smaller districts are the same voters who (say), ‘Do not raise taxes, no matter what, but don’t cut us and don’t hurt education,’ and you can’t have it both ways,” Zwonitzer said. “I don’t know, long-term, how we get past that.”