Legislators sharpen focus on education funding shortfallJan 29, 2017 By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press
Wyoming lawmakers considering how to address a looming $360 million education budget shortfall debated Friday whether students are showing good results for one of the nation's highest rates of K-12 spending and whether cuts would make much difference.
Possible solutions in a bill before the Senate Education Committee include allowing bigger elementary classes and spending less on administration and student transportation.
The committee didn't act on the bill and plans to hear more public testimony Monday (see related story).
Boom is over
Wyoming boosted education spending significantly when booming gas production made the state flush with cash starting in the early 2000s. Now, gas, oil and even coal production has fallen off sharply, crimping state revenue and squeezing state budgets.
Lawmakers and Gov. Matt Mead have cut state spending significantly over the past couple years but per-pupil spending continues to top $17,000 per year. Only Vermont, Alaska and New York spend more, according to Republican Sen. Charlie Scott, of Casper, a sponsor of the bill beforethe committee.
"Frankly, our results -- while they are good compared with the average -- they are not commensurate with the position we are in with the funding," Scott told the committee.
He described Wyoming's standardized test scores as about 10th-best in the country, though Democratic Sen. Chris Rothfuss, of Laramie, said they're more accurately in the top five.
"There's no state in the region that comes close," Rothfuss said.
Spending vs. excellence
Rothfuss credited education spending but Republican Senate President Eli Bebout, of Riverton, who alongside Scott testified in support of the bill, said in fact the opposite appears to be the case.
"Money doesn't seem to be the answer," Bebout said.
The bill would gradually increase minimum class sizes for grades K-3 from 16 now to 19 in the 2019-20 school year -- while also raising reading proficiency goals for those students. Ninety percent of third-graders would need to be proficient in reading for their grade, up from 85 percent now.
Republican Sen. Hank Coe, of Cody, questioned whether bigger class sizes and more ambitious reading proficiency goals weren't at odds. Teachers would still be able to ensure that students who need reading help get individualized instruction, answered Scott.
"I don't think raising the class size here hurts that effort particularly," Scott said.
The bill would cut back on administrative costs by filling no more than half of all top-level school district vacancies over a year-long period. The state Education Department would cut school transportation costs 10 percent below 2015-16 levels.
Other cost-saving proposals in the sprawling bill would seek reimbursement from Medicaid for a portion of the state's special-education spending, as is common in other states.
After years of education spending increases, some belt-tightening would be overdue even if Wyoming didn't face a budget crisis, said Scott.
"We've let things get fat and happy when there wasn't the pressure, and now there is," he said.
Public hearing Monday on ed spending
Wyoming lawmakers will hear testimony on a comprehensive K-12 school funding proposal on Monday night.
The hearing on House Bill 236 will be held at Cheyenne East High School auditorium, across from the temporary Capitol facilities, in order to accommodate an expected large crowd.
It's set to start at 6 p.m.
Public comment will be limited to two minutes per person and those wishing to address the committee are strongly encouraged to prepare written statements for their reference when testifying.
People also can submit public comment on the Legislature's website through Feb. 6.
Lawmakers and Gov. Matt Mead have cut state spending significantly over the past couple years but per-pupil spending continues to top $17,000 per year. Only Vermont, Alaska and New York spend more, according to Republican Sen. Charlie Scott, of Casper.