WYOMING SCHOOLS AT A CROSSROADS: State’s Education System Struggling

Government, educators try to hold back the tide of budget cuts and teacher shortages across the Cowboy State

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Freshly sharpened pencils are getting shorter and brand-new sneakers are getting dirtier as Wyoming students move past first-day-of-school jitters and into their new daily routines.

Meanwhile, educators are facing their own jitters. Teachers manage larger class sizes as positions in their schools go unfilled. School administrators do more with less as legislators scramble to find new income streams for education funding with fossil fuel-based tax revenue declining. The Wyoming Education Association argues that students are not receiving an equitable education as defined by Wyoming’s constitution, and so the organization has sued the state.

Against these odds, stakeholders are looking for ways to rethink and improve how education works in Wyoming. Government agencies, educators and parents are reforming policies and using grant funds to solve problems.

Auer highlights the good

First, the good news. In an interview with the Wyoming Truth, Deputy Superintendent of Public Education Chad Auer acknowledged that the state faces difficulties, but noted some things are going very well in Wyoming’s schools. He pointed to the Hathaway Scholarship, the state-sponsored merit and needs-based scholarship that provides funding for eligible Wyoming students to attend any Wyoming community college or the University of Wyoming.

“It’s a tangible expression of our state’s dedication to the value of education,” Auer said. “Certainly, as with all programs, there might be ways to tweak or improve it over time, but at its core that Hathaway scholarship is our Mount Rushmore in Wyoming. It is an incredible monument to our dedication to education to our kids.”

Another piece of good news: Statistics show that Wyoming students are still finding some success in difficult times. The state’s four-year, on-time graduation rate continues to climb. The 2020-2021 graduation rate was 82.4 percent, a slight uptick from 82.3 percent during the previous school year, but nearly a 5 percent gain from 77.6 percent in 2012-2013. 

Wyoming faces teacher shortages, lawsuit

The bad news is, despite these gains, Wyoming fell below the national average of 88.6 percent graduation rate for 2021, according to U.S. News Best High Schools rankings, which also showed Wyoming ranking lower than all its surrounding neighbor states. 

Wyoming also needs more teachers, and more current teachers would quit if they could. A March 2022 survey conducted by the Wyoming Education Association and the University of Wyoming revealed that of the 700-plus teachers surveyed, 65 percent would like to stop teaching but can’t due to financial or other reasons. 

Meanwhile, the Wyoming Education Association filed a lawsuit on Aug. 18, contending the state legislature has failed in its constitutional duty to fund schools adequately. At a press conference last month, president Grady Hutcherson blamed inadequate funding as the reason for stagnating teacher salaries, increasing class sizes and aging buildings that need to be replaced or aren’t adequate for updated school safety requirements.

Patrick Hacker, the association’s legal counsel, said that the Wyoming Supreme Court mandates the legislature must evaluate the education funding formula every five years to determine what the actual cost of providing an equitable education is. Hacker said the legislature has not made these recalibration adjustments in a timely or adequate manner.

“What it amounts to is the general model as a whole is seriously and grossly underfunded, and it is not in compliance,” Hacker said. 

Wyomingites weigh in  

In 2021, Gov. Gordon formed the Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education advisory group and asked Wyomingites to respond to a 2022 survey about the state’s education system. Over 7,000 people responded, and while 48 percent of those who identified as school district employees said schools prepare students for the future, the overall participant response was a little uglier. A total of 59 percent of survey respondents said they do not believe the state’s education system effectively prepares students for the future.

Wyoming’s survey results are part of a national trend: A recent Gallup poll found that only 42 percent of those polled are satisfied with the nation’s education, down from 51 percent in 2019.

Following the Wyoming survey, the advisory group hosted 17 listening sessions, where most participants said students need more individualized approaches to learning and more flexibility to move at their own pace, according to a statement from the group.

Next steps for the advisory group include making policy suggestions to implement new ideas, which will be available for review later this fall. 

“It is abundantly clear that we need to appreciate the uniqueness of each student and to promote an educational system centered on preparing each student for a productive and fulfilling future consistent with that student’s dreams and abilities,” Chairman John Masters said in a statement.

Follow along

As the 2022-2023 school year unfolds, the Wyoming Truth will share stories of people affected by the state’s educational challenges and those penciling out solutions. Follow along as we take a deep dive into the triumphs and troubles of Wyoming education.

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