By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Advocates for two out of the three proposed charter schools hoping to win the State of Wyoming’s approval to operate pitched their plans Tuesday morning to a panel of the state’s top elected officials.
During the meeting, Gov. Mark Gordon warned against disparaging the quality of existing state public schools, as a means of touting the proposed charter schools.
Prairie View Community School, which is a rural, project-based charter school hoping to operate in Chugwater presented its operating plan and was followed by the Wyoming Classical Academy of Mills, which presented a very different plan of its own, Tuesday to the State Loan and Investment Board. The board consists of Gordon, Auditor Kristi Racines, Treasurer Curt Meier, Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder, and Secretary of State Ed Buchanan.
Board members did not vote on the two charter schools. Another meeting is slated for Sept. 14, at which a third charter school, Cheyenne Classical Academy, is scheduled to pitch its operating plans as well.
All three schools submitted applications to the state board in July, following newly-enacted legislation allowing the state’s executive-branch heads to approve state recognition and funding for charter schools without local public school board oversight.
Prairie View Community School organizers Jerah Nix and Dana Cushman said the small school they hope to open in Chugwater would be “project-based” and “place-based.” That is, students would engage closely with their community and would be expected to organize large projects multiple times a year and present those projects before the community itself. Students also would work with and learn from local employers. Older students would be eligible for internships working on farms, ranches, and other businesses, according to the women’s presentation.
Nix told the board of elected officials that children often will rise to the expectations placed upon them by their community, and that this method of teaching gives students a real sense of purpose and accountability that can lead to success.
The second school group asking for state approval was the Wyoming Classical Academy, to be based in Mills, near Casper. The academy is under the curriculum and support umbrella of Hillsdale College, which is based in Michigan.
Russ Donley, chairman of Wyoming Classical Academy board of trustees, said he started the school initiative because he was discouraged to see anti-American and pro-socialist rhetoric among the nation’s young people.
“I was watching in 2020, the marching of these wonderful young people, but there were some things that weren’t so nice to watch,” he said, describing riots in 2020 that appeared to advocate for a socialistic governance in America.
“I don’t believe in that. I believe in our constitutional republic, which has given us all the benefits,” said Donley.
Donley called Hillsdale and asked if it might support a charter school in Wyoming. The college said no, at first, because Wyoming’s law was not permissive to charter school startups. So Donley contacted Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, who co-chairs the Wyoming Legislature Joint Education Committee.
Scott, along with Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, were able to get the bill passed allowing state-board approval of charter schools.
In his presentation touting Wyoming Classical Academy, Donley said he expects excellent literacy and graduation rates for the school’s students when and if it opens in the fall of 2023.
He also said students with special-education needs will not be turned away.
“We want them all,” he said. “Every kid is a gift. Some gifts unwrap at a slower pace.”
Racines had voiced concerns earlier in the meeting that the schools may have trouble funding special education because there currently is “no vehicle” in state statute for the state to give federal funding to charter schools for that purpose, she said.
‘Not As A Contrast To A Failing System’
In his own presentation before the board, Scott said that roughly half of Wyoming students are reading at a “basic” or “below basic” reading level in third grade, which he considers a grade in which most teachers expect students to be proficient readers.
School funding analysts working with the Legislature, said Scott, were “very bluntly telling us we were not getting our money’s worth” in the state’s K-12 education systems.
Scott also said throwing more money at the problem doesn’t appear to be helping.
“The more we were funding, the worse the results were,” he said.
Later in the meeting the governor cautioned Donley against allowing testimony that could “leave the impression our public schools are not performing.”
“I just want to make sure we’re talking about the benefits of having a charter school, not as a contrast to a failing system but just as an alternative,” said Gordon.
Donley said that was his objective as well.
“We look at our school as lifting all the boats that are on the lake,” said Donley, who had throughout his presentation said there would be benefits from schools having to compete for state funds.
‘We Have An Unelected Person’
Dave Throgmorton, a Rawlins man with a PhD in sociology, spoke in favor of the Chugwater school but appeared to oppose the Wyoming Classical Academy.
Throgmortin also opposed a vote by the current executive board.
“Please table the decisions on all of these charters until Jan. 2, when a completely elected slate of candidates can be sitting on the SLIB board,” he said. “At this point we have an unelected person who lost a primary election; we have another member taking another job in 10 days.”
After being appointed to his seat by Gordon earlier this year, Superintendent Brian Schroder lost the Republican primary election to Megan Degenfelder, who is challenging Democratic nominee Sergio Maldonado in the upcoming general election.
Ed Buchanan, the Secretary of State is scheduled to become a judge in the coming days, but was asked this week by the Wyoming Republican Party to remain at his post until after the general election.
Although he wanted to postpone the applications, Throgmorton praised the Chugwater school as a “wonderful” effort.
“This school has grown organically out of the needs of students and parents in Chugwater,” he said.
But Throgmorton discouraged approval of the Wyoming Classical Academy and expressed disapproval of Hilldale College having “promoted an ideological stance” throughout its schools.
“Prairie View is clearly organic… this school (Wyoming Classical Academy) is not arising out of any particular needs in Wyoming other than, Mr. Donley said, his concern that there were protesters that didn’t love America enough.”
Hillsdale is a private conservative college emphasizing the foundations of Western Civilization in its teaching, according to Hillsdale charter school supporters in Wyoming.