The Wyoming Supreme Court has weighed in on public school finance five times. The Court has held that equal finance of elementary and secondary education is a fundamental right under the Wyoming Constitution.
The first suit was prompted by a desire from non-energy districts to redistribute the windfall of wealth, accrued within energy-rich counties and therefore spent on those counties’ educational systems. The equalization outcome was good, and benefited our local schools.
But in subsequent rulings, the Court went further: Not only must money be equally distributed, but the Court held Wyoming must spend whatever it takes to provide the best education for all.
The Court erred, as do so many, in assuming more money equals better education. That erroneous assumption places everyone in Wyoming between with no satisfying choices.
The Court’s decisions resulted in a “cost based” education finance system that set off rapid growth in education spending. Wyoming’s per student annual spending of $17,000 is among the highest in the United States.
The growth in learning has not been proportionate. It is always a fair question to ask, “What are we getting for our money?”
Nonetheless, there remains in effect the Court’s ruling: “[A] lack of financial resources will not be an acceptable reason for failure to provide the best educational system. All other financial considerations must yield until education is funded.”
That is an audacious pronouncement. What priorities must yield to education?
Besides K-12 education, Wyoming’s two largest programs are Medicaid and its prison system. The Court’s ruling means the need to care for our elderly and ill, and to house criminals, become, in the eyes of the law, secondary concerns. Medicaid and prison budgets have been cut, as have many other parts of the state budget. Entire programs—good programs—have been eliminated.
Education, too, has been cut, though not as deeply.
None of these cuts are yet enough to fund the education funding shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.
More cuts for all programs, including education, are on the table this session. Legislators are concerned with reaching the point at which a lawsuit would bring the Supreme Court back into school finance.
Some say we can’t cut our way out of this. But that directly translates into higher taxes.
If the state sales tax were doubled from 4 percent to 8 percent, it would not fully fill the education funding gap we are facing.
In my view, tax increases are off the table for this session. State government grew during the boom. In the bust, we must keep the pressure on government to do more with less. Talk of a tax increase sends a false “all clear” signal.
Will there come a time when the public feels cuts have gone too far and there develops a groundswell of support for more taxes? Will the schools sue over cuts? Will the Wyoming Supreme Court, in effect, try to dictate tax increases? Or, will the Court reconsider its opinion given the State’s energy and tax downturn?
Having well-educated students benefits Wyoming and our long-term future. Yet, that should be balanced with the needs of others and keeping taxes low. We may find out if the Supreme Court feels the same. Until then, we are between a rock and a hard place.
Dave Kinskey represents Wyoming Senate District 22 which consists of Johnson County and eastern Sheridan county. A businessperson and former Mayor of Sheridan, Kinskey can be reached at Dave.Kinskey@WyoLeg.gov or cell 751-6428.