Education is already state’s top expense — why spend more?

in Column/Education

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY

I never served on the Senate Education Committee, but participated in many discussions on school funding formulas, education expenses, school construction, curriculum, teacher salaries and administrative costs. 

I did have the opportunity to serve six years on the Appropriations Committee and on the latest Recalibration Committee as well as the School Facilities Select Committee and so, like most legislators voting on these matters, I couldn’t help but learn about the issues facing education.

Recently the Joint Education Committee met and narrowly passed a proposal for a $19 million increase to the education funding model. This bill will go to the full Legislature in February for a vote. 

I question the need for yet another increase to education funding, considering the fact spending on our public schools is already the largest of all the state’s budget expenditures. In addition, an annual automatic adjustment to education to account for inflation already adds $15 million a year to the cost. So Wyoming ranks No. 1 in our region for education spending and No. 5 in the country.

It leaves me shaking my head that the Education Committee is once again recommending even more spending increases. It begs the questions: Where will the money come from? Which budget will we rob from or what tax increase is coming? 

The explanation for the proposed increase from committee leaders was that Wyoming’s Supreme Court required education to be the Legislature’s top funding priority. My answer to that is that K-12 education is already the largest segment of our ever-growing state budget. 

Where we spent $1,234 per student in 1979, we are now spending $16,381 in 2019. The Legislature has elected to spend more than the funding model suggests every year since 2001. And yet we need to spend even more? Since 1979 our K-12 education budget has grown nearly 400 percent! 

Also consider that most school district superintendents in Wyoming — we have 48 — make more than our Governor

Folks, no one seems to driving this runaway train and sadly, I don’t see any stop to it. All of this leaves me with the question: How much do we need to spend or how much is enough for our schools to be happy enough to prevent them from suing the Legislature a fourth time. 

Personally, I say bring it. 

What evidence do our schools have that they are not our top priority? Most districts have new buildings, new buses, the highest starting salaries in the region, low class sizes, top-of-the-line benefits packages and the best students in the nation to work with. I for one grow tired of the threat of a law suit. Times have changed over the last 40 years and frankly, they do not have a leg to stand on. 

Finally, I would add this: If our Supreme Court rules again that our school districts need more money, then I would challenge our justices to balance our state budget. Are roads important? Water, sewer and other infrastructure that make our communities nice to live in, are they important? How about health care? Emergency services, law enforcement? 

I could go on and on with other budgets that will continue to be robbed in the name of education. Look at the numbers. Look at what we spend. Look at what we have spent with the funding increases over the last 40 years and then tell me with a straight face that more is needed to maintain the quality of our education. And please don’t tell me that I don’t believe in education as much as you do. Or that I just don’t understand how education works. I see what goes in and what comes out, and I’m left thinking that we can do much better.

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