By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily
A former state senator who was ousted from the Legislature after sponsoring a bill that threatened to cut education funding is doubling down, saying more money needs to be cut.
Ray Peterson of Cowley said he was alarmed when he learned the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee recommended a $19 million education “external cost adjustment” — a boost to allow school funding to keep up with inflation. Weeks later, Gov. Mark Gordon also recommended an education adjustment of $19 million in 2020, and $19 million for the following year.
“My concern is it’s not sustainable with the downturn in coal,” Peterson, a Republican who lost re-election in 2018, said in an interview. “That’s where a lot of our education funding comes from: Coal, oil and gas.”
So now he’s speaking out. No longer in the Legislature, he said he wants to start a discussion, hoping lawmakers will be empowered by his talking points.
“I hope my defeat is not used as a poster child.” he said. “These decisions are hard.”
Nevertheless, the Wyoming Education Association says Peterson’s views are outside the norm and may not pass constitutional muster. The WEA points to a 2017 Public Opinion Strategies poll it commissioned that found 78 percent of registered voters agreed with the statement: “Even with the tough budget situation, funding for K-12 grade schools in the state should NOT be cut.”
And while Peterson questioned education salaries and spending compared to Wyoming’s neighbors, WEA President Kathy Vetter noted in Education Week’s report card, Quality Counts 2019, that the state ranked sixth nationally in education – higher than all five of its neighbors.
2018 session bill
Education became a central topic in Peterson’s 2018 re-election primary after he sponsored a bill designed to prevent districts from squirreling away large cash reserves for construction, he said. After several amendments, the cut to Wyoming schools would have been around $40 million, Peterson said, but it was shelved as other school funding measures were working through the legislative process.
Components of Peterson’s bill were folded into another piece of legislation that cut education by around $29 million — and that bill passed.
Less than six months later, Peterson – who had served since 2004 and chaired the Senate Revenue Committee — lost re-election to R.J. Kost, a Republican who retired from a long education career.
This time around, Peterson is offering a graph that he said charts 40 years of education funding in Wyoming — and an overall spending increase of 400 percent.
If inflation was kept closer to the Consumer Price Index, he said the increase should only be around 120 percent.
Peterson acknowledged some of that increase occurred when legislators decades ago decided to direct more cash toward schools. Money also was distributed from the state to equalize funding among school districts after a series of Wyoming Supreme Court decisions that funding must be uniform.
He also said some of the education funding increases were a deliberate decision by the Legislature to offer attractive salaries to lure and keep teachers in the state.
But now Peterson thinks enough is enough. He thinks cuts could be constitutional if they were applied in a manner in which no school district disproportionately suffered.
“My concern is it’s a runaway freight train and nobody’s tapping the brakes,” he said.
The constant increases in school funding come at the expense of other state programs, he said, since the state revenue pie is shrinking.
Possible constitutional issues
However, Vetter, the WEA president, said in an email that in one of the Supreme Court’s education funding decisions, it ruled the Legislature must fund education “adequately and equitably” before anything else.
The proposal for a $38 million spending increase in the first year of the coming biennium just barely meets the minimum recommendation for education funding set by the Joint Education Committee, Vetter said.
“The Legislature has established a funding model that meets the constitutional guarantee,” she said. “Gov. Gordon’s budget proposal honors Wyoming students’ constitutionally protected, fundamental right to an equitable, high-quality education.”
Vetter doesn’t deny these are challenging times for the state’s economy, and that other parts of the state budget are suffering. But the Legislature has constitutional obligations.
“Sacrificing on education means sacrificing Wyoming’s future,” she said.