SHERIDAN — Legislators recently discussed issues of transparency and fidelity within school funding models around the state, with testimony from a county superintendent setting the stage for how legislative decisions impact individual school districts.
During the 2020 budget session, the Wyoming Legislature passed House Bill 40, “School finance-model recalibration,” which created a select committee on school finance to study and reevaluate the education resource block grant model.
According to the Wyoming Department of Education, guaranteed funding to public school districts includes a block grant based on student enrollment numbers by district, special education and transportation costs, location and local revenue.
Jay Curtis, superintendent of Park County School District 1, reported a district perspective on recalibration to the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration Thursday. As the fourth of its kind, Curtis said he cannot recall a more difficult recalibration year than this one.
Curtis described the block grant model as “excellent” but founded upon several erroneous assumptions that cause issues in local-level implementation — primarily, that all model components are funded appropriately.
Fortunately, the block grant allows school districts to balance the discrepancy between over-funded and under-funded areas of the model at the local level to best serve the needs of students, he said.
Secondly, the model is not one-size-fits-all for student needs per district. Even with a similar population, each district may have vastly different cultural values and mental health needs, for example, Curtis said.
Thirdly, the model does not support year-to-year flexibility decided at the local level to meet unexpected scenarios, like two dozen more kindergarten students in one year than forecasted. Curtis strongly advocated for local control to meet student needs.
“Those decisions are best made with the kid sitting in front of you, not from — in a calibration meeting,” Curtis said. “The model is excellent...however, there are decisions that can, should and have to be made at the local level to best meet the needs of students.”
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said he understands the need for flexibility but assuming operations will continue as they have in the past is unrealistic. A lack of understanding about how money is moved around within school districts frustrates some taxpayers, especially as the state faces massive budget reductions and tax increases, he said.
“[When] we start tinkering with the model and the basket of goods, then how do we know what the ramifications of that are going to be at the local level, or are we just going to say, ‘Just throw money in the model’...and then allow them to spend it however they want?” Hicks posed.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said Wyoming has a more transparent system than most other states in the nation as far as how districts report their spending data. While legislators may disagree with how the money is spent, the information is readily available, he said. Curtis echoed his confidence in school spending transparency.
Among the powers granted at the local level through the funding model, school districts can increase teacher salaries with unused insurance money — an important tool of flexibility given a looming teacher shortage, Curtis said. He expects a “dog fight” to keep certified and talented teachers in classrooms, which could be assisted by a strong benefit package and other retention efforts.
Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said rather than transparency, his issue with the model is one of “fidelity” — from a consultant model to a legislative model to implementation in schools. While unconcerned with the quantity of information available, Barlow said his focus is on the continuity of legislative expectations and delivery in classrooms.
Sommers said standards established by the state education board provide some backing to ensure schools remain accountable for their performance, but the state still needs to consider how much control it wants to exercise over individual districts.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, also raised the issue of oversight in the context of Wyoming Supreme Court decisions regarding education.
The high court requires that school finances are subject to strict scrutiny and the Legislature is ordered to work based on a rational cost-based model with the best classroom practices for student achievement, Kinskey said. The Legislature is obligated to fund those goals but districts lack obligation to implement, which negates strict scrutiny, he added.
“So, the correlation between the money we’re spending and the educational outcomes and the model that we’re under orders to implement, and the lack of any implementation of that model at the local level,” Kinskey said. “I think everything lacks fidelity in this and I don’t know how any of this passes strict scrutiny, quite frankly.”
In a follow-up email with The Sheridan Press, Kinskey said he believes as far as case law that established strict scrutiny protocols, the Wyoming Supreme Court “vastly overstepped the separation of powers, and went further in directing how our schools are to be run than any other court in the 50 states has ever done.”
The high court requires the state to fund an evidence-based model in education. As a result, the state outspends neighboring states substantially per student, Kinskey explained. After a California consulting team compiles a model incorporating Professional Learning Community principles, a block grant is distributed to school districts with lenient spending distribution allowances — few districts follow through on the evidence-based component, Kinskey said.
“All of Wyoming government, including K-12, must live within its means,” Kinskey said. “Families and businesses have had to tighten their belts, government must do the same.”
During the committee meeting, Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, said his interpretation is directly opposite of Kinskey — strict scrutiny applies to the funding amount only, though districts are subject to the rational basis test. Wyoming is as close as any state to conforming with the strict scrutiny component, he said.
Legislators will continue to consider and debate school operations amid the coronavirus pandemic, virtual education, funding model applicability, community needs and district autonomy leading up to the next general session of the Legislature.