Facing a massive shortfall, Wyoming will explore new methods for funding education

The consultants hired to examine Wyoming’s education funding system will also study at least three alternative models that would overhaul how schools are paid for here, researchers from the firm testified Tuesday.

The consultants, Denver-based Augenblick, Palaich & Associates, will work through the process of recalibration for the rest of this year and into January ahead of a shortened legislative session in February. Four researchers from the firm presented their plan to lawmakers Tuesday in their first public appearance, which also provided a first look at their strategy for examining the funding model as the state tries to tackle a massive education deficit.

Recalibration normally takes place every five years — and last happened in 2015 — but lawmakers accelerated the timeline this year because of the looming shortfall. Last month, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration recommended — and legislative leadership approved — the hiring of the consulting firm, the first time since 2005 that the state made a change with the consultants it used.

Lawmakers have said the decision doesn’t necessarily mean they’re moving toward an entirely new funding model, which would overhaul how funding levels are determined for all 48 of Wyoming’s school districts. House Speaker and committee member Steve Harshman, a Casper Republican, said it was far too early to tell what path the committee would recommend in November.

The consultants explained Tuesday that they would undertake a complete evaluation of the current model for funding schools, a complex system unique to Wyoming that sets a price for all parts of school operations, from textbooks to teacher salaries.

That process will include a look at Wyoming’s educational standards that must be provided to every K-12 student here. Educators have for months said that if cuts continue, then lawmakers should look at the basket of goods, as the standards are called, and consider lessening a curriculum that’s become harder to maintain as resources are slashed.

That review will be the first step in the consultants’ work, which is crucial to the process, committee chairman Rep. Albert Sommers said during the meeting Tuesday at the Oil and Gas Commission building in Casper.

“I want to get back to the fact that I’m asking you about what’s a quality education in Wyoming,” he told the four consultants. They and lawmakers had been discussing comparing Wyoming’s educational system — and students’ performance — to other states.

Sommers suggested comparisons aren’t as vital as protecting the integrity of schooling here.

“How does this get to the question of providing adequate education” to all students?” he said.

Besides, it’s difficult to make comparisons to other states, officials said, because Wyoming is a geographically large rural state with constitutional restraints on funding.

There are other factors that make side-by-side looks difficult: For instance, it’s true that the state’s ACT scores rank 39th in the country. But it’s also true that Wyoming is one of just 13 states that require all students, college-bound or not, to take the test. Of those states, Wyoming ranks fourth.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, said the consultants shouldn’t compare Wyoming just to neighboring states. Republican leaders in the Senate have for months noted that Wyoming pays substantially more than its regional neighbors, and they’ve charged the state doesn’t get an acceptable return on its investment.

But Rothfuss said officials should be comparing schools here to the very best in the country, which are located largely on the East Coast.

“If all we want to do is beat our neighbors, we’re doing that,” he said. “What do we want? To be the best of seven (nearby) states and then stop trying to compare to rest of the country? Or do we want to have education system that’s equal to East Coast states or West Coast states?”

Lawmakers and the APA consultants didn’t settle Tuesday on what states Wyoming’s system should be compared with.

Alternative options

On top of their review of the state’s current funding model, the consultants will also explore three alternative systems: successful schools, which looks at the best districts in the state, determines their resource levels and applies them to other districts across the state; professional judgment panels, which would bring together educators and experts from across the state to determine adequate funding levels; and a statistical approach, which would compare funding levels with students’ results.

Lawmakers could recommend one of those options over the current model, particularly if it would save the state money. But there’s also the potential that the examinations of all of the models could actually raise the bill for the state, said Sen. Bill Landen.

The consultants told lawmakers that if any of the alternative models produced cheaper results, they would investigate why to ensure it didn’t cut funds at the cost of a poorer education system.

Though state lawmakers have stuck with the current funding model for 12 years — they even turned down a change recommended by their old consultants in 2015 — there’s still potential they could move on, Harshman said. He pointed out that this system has parts of both successful schools and professional judgment panels rolled in, and any change in the system would probably incorporate elements of the current model.

In addition to their review of the system options, the consultants will conduct studies of other aspects of the education world here. One will look at the viability of consolidating some of the state’s 48 districts. Another will survey districts to see how they’ve been collaborating to save money on services.

Landen said those studies will include a look at transportation and special education. Every dollar districts spend on those services is reimbursed in full by the state, which Landen said provides no incentive for districts to look for savings.

Lawmakers considered cutting reimbursements for both transportation and special education during last winter’s legislative session but ultimately decided to freeze transportation spending. But committee members repeatedly asked the consultants about looking at those two areas, and Landen said that meant the issues were far from dead.

He said the consultants’ work will likely also examine average daily membership, a calculation of a district’s attendance that determines how much money that district receives from the state. Before this legislative session, a student needed to be in school for only 51 percent of the day to be counted. But lawmakers made a change, so students must be in school at least 80 percent of the time.

The recalibration process is operating on a tight time frame, lawmakers acknowledged. The consultants will have to work quickly to complete the needed examinations by November, when legislators have said they’d like to consider the consultants’ recommendations. But the consultants’ plan puts their timeline for completing that process in December or January, which would give lawmakers little time to weigh their options before the Legislature convenes in February.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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