Wyoming Says 'Unsurpassed' School Funding Not A Fundamental Right

The Wyoming Education Association has sued the state claiming public schools are underfunded, and that paying for education is a fundamental right on par with free speech. The state says it’s not.

Clair McFarland

August 16, 20234 min read

Natrona County High School
Natrona County High School (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The right of Wyoming residents to have well-funded schools is not on the same level as their free-speech and other fundamental rights, the state’s attorneys are arguing in the Wyoming Supreme Court.  

The Wyoming Education Association in August 2022 sued the state, claiming the Legislature is depriving state schools of the “thorough … visionary and unsurpassed” education system the Wyoming Constitution guarantees them.  

The Wyoming Supreme Court in a series of cases has reiterated that the state Constitution promises a complete and uniform public education system. The high court also has placed students’ equal access to education money from district to district — regardless of each county’s affluence — on par with free speech and other fundamental rights.

That means the state can’t subject students in Teton and Niobrara counties to disparate educational treatment without proving it had a compelling reason to do so, and that it’s done in the least onerous means possible, according to court documents.  

That test is called “strict scrutiny.”  

More Money Though 

The Wyoming Education Association and a handful of school districts opposing the state government are arguing that not only the equality of funding, but also its statewide adequacy, is a fundamental right.  

Laramie County District Court Judge Peter H. Froelicher agrees with them.  

If the court finds that Wyoming has been underfunding its schools, the state will have to come up with a compelling justification for that and demonstrate it did so in a limited way, the judge wrote in a July 31 order.  

But, added Froelicher, the Wyoming Education Association and the schools have not yet proven the state is underfunding schools, and they have the burden of doing that before making the state explain itself.  

Let’s Take A Second Look 

The state government has countered in a petition asking the Wyoming Supreme Court to take another look. It characterized equating access to ample education funding with other fundamental rights as illogical.  

“While the strict scrutiny test is designed to address the equal protection implications of the disparities at issue in those earlier cases, it remains unclear whether or how a court could logically apply such a test to evaluate challenges to the adequacy of funding the Legislature chooses to provide for education,” reads the petition, submitted Monday by Wyoming Deputy Attorney General Mark A. Klaasen, Senior Assistant Attorney Sean Towles and Casper-based attorney Tim Stubson.  

The petition urges the high court to take up the issue because it is, the state says, of high importance to Wyomingites.  

“This case … involves a sweeping effort by several school districts and an association of education professionals to compel more education spending and override decisions of the elected representatives of the citizens of Wyoming,” says the petition.  

The state also claims that listing access to a certain level of school funding among other fundamental rights will draw the courts into policy-making areas by forcing them to determine how much money is enough.  

The Complaint 

Wyoming’s Legislature has a paramount priority to support opportunities for a “complete, proper, quality education,” the Wyoming Education Association wrote in its original complaint.  

The group referenced court cases saying Wyoming’s constitutional duty requires a “visionary and unsurpassed” education system.  

The school districts suing Wyoming along with the lobbying group are Albany County School District No. 1, Campbell County School District No. 1, Carbon County School District No. 2, Lincoln County School District No. 1, Sweetwater County School Districts Nos. 1 and 2, and Uinta County School District No. 1.  

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter