Stop using math scores as an excuse to defund public education in state

Jun 7, 2017 Nate Martin, Laramie


Wyoming State Sen. Dave Kinskey(R-Sheridan) is obsessed with eighth-grade math scores.

He serves on the Legislature's Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which is tasked with addressing the $400 million annual budget shortfall that currently faces Wyoming public education.

What lawmakers should really be focused on, Kinskey says at literally every meeting, is the fact that Wyoming eighth-graders' standardized math scores are lower than scores of their peers in Utah, while Utah spends less per student on education.

What Kinskey fails to acknowledge is that he has not been assigned to serve on the "recalibration" committee because there is an eighth-grade math crisis in Wyoming. There isn't one. He was put on the committee to deal with a budget crisis.

In fact, you couldn't find a random sampling of Wyoming eighth-graders that struggles with math as badly as Kinskey and his colleagues struggle with balancing the education budget.

Kinskey and his cohort in the Wyoming Senate badmouth Wyoming students' performance because they're looking for an excuse to not raise new revenues. Under the leadership of Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), the Senate has adopted a staunch stance against any new taxes. Bebout's followers are compelled to justify that baseline position -- no new taxes, no matter what --even when it means arguing to defund Wyoming public schools.

At a recalibration meeting in April, Kinskey used a business analogy to warn that Wyoming students' performance made funding education a risky investment.

"The last thing I'd do is spend more money on a business I'm concerned about," he said -- as though he weren't actually talking about our children and the future of our state.

To be clear: Kinskey isn't arguing against adding new funding on top of what the state normally allocates public schools. He's saying we shouldn't replace the $400 million of annual funding that has disappeared as a result of the loss of mineral revenues in the present energy sector slump.

Because Wyoming eighth-graders don't test as well as Utah in math, Kinskey reasons, we should maybe just cut teachers and programs and make students focus more on arithmetic. This is despite the fact that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Wyoming eighth-grade math scores have been steadily improving for a couple of decades now.

Kinskey's argument is not only cynical, but his comparison between the cost per student of education in Wyoming and Utah is also misleading.

It's true that, statewide, Utah educates its students at a lower cost than Wyoming. But 80 percent of Utah's population is concentrated in a metropolitan area along the Wasatch Front. Denser populations are cheaper to educate because, for instance, they require fewer administrators, transportation costs are lower, and materials are cheaper because they can be bought in greater bulk.

Sweetwater County School District 2 superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo pointed out that Daggett County, Utah -- her district's neighbor to the immediate south -- actually spends more per student than her district in Green River, because Daggett County is even more rural than Sweetwater County. Unsurprisingly, rural areas of Colorado also spend more per student than Wyoming, and so does the sparsely populated state of Alaska.

Kinskey and other state senators would like the people of Wyoming to believe that they're up at night, losing sleep over eighth-grade math scores. And while we all would love to see our junior high math students best their Utah peers, Kinskey's focus on this tiny part of the much larger picture is a distraction. It's a smokescreen that allows him to opt out of the hard work required of him by the Wyoming State Constitution, which demands the Legislature provide adequate funding so that every student in the state has access to a high quality education.

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