House Torches Bill To Add More Charter Schools In Wyoming

After a legislative committee killed a proposal to expand charter schools in Wyoming on Monday, the state House rejected an effort on Tuesday to resurrect it. Had it passed, the bill would have allowed a state commission to approve another charter school this year -- something proponents say is sorely needed.

CM
Clair McFarland

March 05, 20245 min read

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After a Wyoming legislative committee killed a bill seeking to allow more charter schools in the state, a lawmaker tried — and failed — to resurrect it.  

Rep. Ocean Andrew, R-Laramie, asked the Wyoming House of Representatives on Tuesday to resurrect Senate File 128 from the burn pile, after the House Education Committee voted it down 6-3 on Monday.

“Communities … need these schools, and I believe this is a good bill and something the body should have a chance to talk about,” Andrew told the House during his Tuesday resurrection effort.

Most of the chamber disagreed, voting 35-26 against reviving the legislation.

Had it passed, the bill would have allowed a state commission to approve one more charter school this year, in addition to the three approved recently under a new state-authorization law designed to test the waters of school choice.

The law currently will allow a fourth charter school approval, but not until after July 1, 2026.

The Senate amended SF 128 even further, allowing three charter schools to be approved before 2028, rather than one.

But the House Education Committee reversed that amendment, whittling the bill back down to its original plan allowing just one extra charter school this year. Then the committee voted down the bill altogether.

Down A Two-Lane Road

Bill sponsor Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, told the House Education Committee on Monday that the growing community of Alpine is hurting for a public school since it doesn’t have a one of its own.

The community has approached Lincoln County School District No. 2 about adding one more public school to the district’s map, but the feasibility study the state uses for such projects could delay a new school build for six to eight years, proponents said.

If the Legislature would push the timeframe for a new school approval down from 2026 to 2024, the Alpine community would seize the opportunity, Dockstader said.

Alpine communications consultant Jeff Daugherty agreed.

Numerous children have to travel 30 miles on a two-lane road to Etna to attend the lower grades. Or they have to travel to Afton to attend secondary school, Daugherty told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday.

“That’s 20 to 40 hours a month,” he said. “That’s a lot of time they’re away from their families.”

Daugherty said by the time the feasibility for a district build-out is done, the kids commuting now won’t even be at that elementary level anymore.

“These kiddos need help right now,” he said, adding that SF 128 had “enormous support” in the state Senate.

The Senate Education Committee advanced the bill with four in favor and one, the committee’s lone Democrat Sen. Chris Rothfuss, against. Then the Senate sent the bill to the House with resounding approval: a 29-2 passage vote.

Why Not Locally?

Lobbyists for traditional public schools opposed SF 128 Monday.

Ken Decaria, director of government relations for the Wyoming School Boards Association, asked why the Alpine community hadn’t gone to its local school board asking for it to approve a charter school under its umbrella.

But the 2021 legislation allowing the state board to approve charter schools passed because local school boards resisted doing so, school-choice proponents said at the time.

Lincoln County School District No. 2 Superintendent Matt Erickson did not immediately respond to a voicemail message or an email by publication time Tuesday.

Building This Airplane

Decaria also urged a cautious approach, saying the 2022 legislation was meant to test charter schools’ cost efficiency and academic performance.

Lawmakers should see how the new ones do before authorizing more, Decaria said.

And the Legislature has had to tweak the legislation multiple times to account for oversights, he said, adding, “We’re still building this airplane while we’re flying it.”

Not Sure How They’re Doing

Rep. Ryan Berger, R-Evanston, asked Wyoming Department of Education chief policy officer Wanda Maloney to field a question: how are the new charter schools (only two of the three are currently operational) performing?

Maloney said that report is not done yet.

“We’re still in the process of looking at the impact of those three charter schools,” she said. “They’re in the very beginning stages of opening.”

Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, said he empathizes with Alpine’s plight, especially since he co-chairs the Select Committee on School Facilities, but doesn’t want to authorize more charter schools until he has a clearer picture of how the new ones are doing.

Berger and Brown voted no on the bill, along with Committee Chair Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell; Rep. Ken Clouston, R-Gillette; Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper; and Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie.

Parts For The Airplane

Meanwhile, other 2024 bills designed to help charter schools are in the legislative end game.  

Gov. Mark Gordon signed House Bill 21 on Monday, a bill repealing a three-year waiting period for charter schools to get lease funding from the state for their buildings.

Senate File 61 has cleared both chambers and is headed to Gordon’s desk. It allows state-authorized charter schools to act like local education agencies to get grants, and it establishes a process for the school districts to pass the charter schools’ state funding through to them.

Kari Cline, executive director of the Wyoming Public Charter Schools Association, said both bills strengthen charter school policy in Wyoming.

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

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter