Parental choice in education is guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the fundamental right of parents to direct the care, upbringing, and education of their children.
While parental choice in education may be a new concept to some, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized this right since the 1920s. What is new is the growing number of states developing school choice options for parents.
In Wyoming, we have always valued individualism and freedom. So, it is no surprise that many Wyoming parents desire more choice in education.
As legislators, we have heard loud and clear that parents want – and I might add, appropriately so – more choices concerning how their children are educated.
Support for public education and parental choice in education are not mutually exclusive. Wyoming can provide quality public education and assist parents who choose a different educational experience for their children.
I am a strong supporter of public education and school choice. I am a product of the Wyoming public education system – a system that will remain the preferred choice for many parents.
The Wyoming Constitution guarantees a public education, and legislators have a Constitutional mandate to provide adequate funding for public education.
However, education is not one size fits all. The best public school can’t meet the needs of every child, and conversely, the best private school can’t meet the needs of every child. It is about having options.
Enter the concept of education savings accounts (ESAs), which continues to be considered among policymakers in the legislature because it provides families with the financial means to choose the best educational paths for their children.
Over the legislative interim, the Joint Education Committee, of whom I am a member, worked on and passed out of committee House Bill 19 - Education Savings Accounts. This bill seeks to balance the need for parental choice and a strong public education system.
In recognition of this balance, the bill’s funding comes directly from the General Fund and, therefore, is separate from the money set aside for funding Wyoming's k-12 system. The bill also helps parents make informed choices by including accountability for private educators through certifying providers and requiring annual nationally normed testing to help parents evaluate their child’s progress.
Under the current draft, the ESA bill allows a parent whose income falls below 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Level [approximately $75,000 per year for a family of 4] to utilize $5000/year of state dollars to help fund their child's private school education from age 3 through 12th Grade. I believe this income level is too restrictive; this can and should be amended to allow more Wyoming families access to ESAs. I will be offering amendments to House Bill 19 to expand eligibility for ESAs to more Wyoming families.
Parents can use the funds allocated to ESAs for various educational expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and pre-kindergarten. ESAs are one more tool for ensuring that children with varying learning abilities and interests can access the education that suits them best.
Extending ESAs to pre-kindergarten education will benefit families who feel their child needs help preparing for kindergarten. Wyoming does not have a statewide public pre-kindergarten program. This bill allows Wyoming families who desire to provide their children with a solid foundation for lifelong learning through private pre-kindergarten programs access to ESAs.
Numerous studies highlight the importance of early childhood education in cognitive, emotional and social development. And in my conversations with kindergarten teachers, I have learned of a worrying trend. An increasing number of Wyoming children are entering kindergarten unprepared, with some lacking basic skills such as toilet training or socialization. By including pre-k in ESAs, Wyoming is taking strides toward ensuring every child has access to the benefits of early education.
However, let it be clear – the bill does not mandate preschool for Wyoming children as some have claimed. Instead, it provides parents with financial resources to make choices that may have previously been beyond their reach. Or, in families with multiple children, it affords the youngest Wyoming learner the same opportunity as an older sibling.
Admittedly, House Bill 19 can be improved upon. That is what the legislative process is designed to do. This bill provides a good framework and the best opportunity for Wyoming to expand school choice options for parents. That is why I am urging my fellow representatives to vote for the introduction of the bill so we can continue working together to improve the bill and give Wyoming parents the choices they need to educate their children while safeguarding our public education system.
The Education Savings Account bill is not just a matter of choice but an investment in Wyoming's future. It aligns with the core values of self-determination and individual responsibility that define Wyoming. It offers a promising future where every child can thrive in their unique way and gives parents a pathway to support even our youngest Wyoming citizens.
Martha Lawley is a Republican serving House District 27 in Big Horn and Washakie Counties since 2023.