After the state of Wyoming argued to its highest court that a certain level of school funding is not a fundamental right on par with free speech, an organization that represents teachers has accused the state of trying to overhaul 40 years of case law.
The Wyoming Education Association sued the state last year, alleging that it doesn’t fund its schools to a level required by the Wyoming Constitution. A handful of school districts have since joined the lawsuit.
When Laramie County District Court Judge Peter Froelicher ruled July 28 that Wyomingites have a fundamental right — on par with free speech — to a certain level of public funding of schools, the state disagreed and asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to weigh in.
The teacher’s group and the suing school districts are now throwing a penalty flag on the state’s maneuver in two briefs filed Tuesday opposing the state’s petition.
“(Wyoming’s) question is apparently intended to ask this Court to uproot existing case law and establish a new double standard” for reviewing school funding questions in lawsuits, says the Wyoming Education Association’s (WEA) filing.
The school districts and WEA asked the high court not to answer the state’s question, and to wait instead for the end of this lawsuit and a possible appeal after the trial, which is scheduled for next summer.
They claim in their separate filings that the state has overlooked the rules for appealing cases and is chasing an “extraordinary remedy” prematurely by asking for a clarification of prior case law in the middle of the lawsuit it now faces.
A Billion And A Half
Upsetting the way of doing things could be the state’s exact intention: A series of lawsuits over the course of 40 years have compiled obligations for the Wyoming Legislature to apply when funding schools.
That’s because the Wyoming Constitution promises a “complete and uniform” public school system.
The courts’ interpretation of the state Constitution has led to a system in which the Legislature “recalibrates” or assesses changes in school costs and inflationary demands every five years at least, and adjusts for inflation every year.
Wyoming spent about $244 million on K-12 education — operational money, not building costs — in 1983, which was three years after the first of the school funding lawsuits on which the WEA is relying to make its case.
Now 40 years later, Wyoming is spending six-and-a-half times that much, at $1.583 billion for the 2023-2024 school year.
You Just Wait
WEA and the schools are asking the Wyoming Supreme Court to let the case go forward as normal at the district court level, and to take up the state’s question after the trial, if it’s still relevant.
The state government is insisting that only the equality of funding across school districts, not the level, should fall into the category of fundamental rights.
WEA and the schools countered, saying the high court has repeatedly examined school funding levels under its standard of review for fundamental rights.
That standard is called “strict scrutiny.”
The state, argued WEA, is trying “to obtain some kind of ruling or new precedent from this Court that would reverse decades of established law.”
But the case is still young, the lobby group continued, and WEA has not yet proven to the district court that the state is cheating schools out of money to which they are constitutionally entitled.
“Contrary to the State’s representation, there is no ‘extreme’ need to address the question it raises at this time,” says WEA’s brief.
Afraid To Lose?
If WEA were to prove that Wyoming underfunded schools, the state would then have to show it had a compelling reason for doing so and did it in the least onerous way.
WEA implied that the state is afraid it will lose and that it can’t justify its alleged underfunding.
“The State’s approach … implies that it expects not to be able to justify the funding of education under a strict scrutiny standard,” says WEA’s filing, “and so is seeking to change the rules and only have the review done … at a lower level which might give it a better chance of success.”
The strict scrutiny standard is the highest level of review courts apply to government actions, meaning it’s difficult to justify laws challenged under that test.
A Chink In The Armor
The Wyoming Attorney General’s petition, however, focused on a paragraph in the Wyoming Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in the case of the Campbell County School District vs. Wyoming, known as Campbell IV.
Disparities between school districts fall under the strict scrutiny standard, but applying the same test to claims of “inadequate funding … is not supported by any authority and misconstrues the strict scrutiny test,” the high court said in that case.
It’s a chink in the armor for the obligations Wyoming’s judicial branch has placed on its legislative branch’s school-funding mechanisms for years, the state’s attorneys claim.
“This most recent holding marked an important shift, implicitly recognizing that the right to education encompasses two different, albeit related, rights,” they said.
Meaning, the right to equality in education funding is fundamental, but the Legislature should have more leeway in deciding how much to spend overall.
The schools sharply disagreed, accusing the state of taking the Campbell IV wording out of context.
“Such a reading is not logical,” argued the school districts. The districts then quoted Froelicher, who said that this point of contention simply was “not in play” during Campbell IV, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the case law addressing it should be overturned.
These Schools, Specifically
The school districts that have joined the WEA’s lawsuit against Wyoming are:
Albany County School District No. 1
Campbell County School District No. 1
Carbon County School District No. 1
Laramie County School District No. 1
Lincoln County School District No. 1
Sweetwater County School District No. 1
Sweetwater County School District No. 2
Uinta County School District No. 1