WYOMING SCHOOLS AT A CROSSROADS: Wyoming Judge Allows Lawsuit Over State Education Funding to Proceed

Wyoming Education Association argues state representatives have failed to adequately fund K-12 education

By Jacob Gardenswartz

Special to the Wyoming Truth 

A lawsuit alleging that the State of Wyoming has failed to adequately fund K-12 public education can proceed after a judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case outright.

In a Dec. 6 order recently made public, Judge Peter Froelicher of the First Judicial District Court of Laramie County found that the Wyoming Education Association (WEA), a nonprofit group comprised of roughly 6,000 educators and school support personnel, has legitimate standing to bring the case against the state.

The Wyoming Education Association, led by chief legal counsel Pat Hacker, can move forward with its case arguing that the State of Wyoming has failed to adequately fund public education, a judge recently ruled. (Photo via the Wyoming Education Association)

The lawsuit, filed in August, argues the State of Wyoming has failed to uphold its constitutional duty to adequately fund public education, pointing to stagnating teacher and staff wages that haven’t kept pace with rising inflation, lack of investment in school security, underfunded school lunch programs and “inadequate, problematic” campus facilities. The 71-page complaint also notes that the state legislature has commissioned various studies to determine the adequate level of funding needed, but has thus far failed to enact budgets aligned with those findings.

“The fact that the State has failed to fund public education at even the increased, but still inadequate, level recommended by its own consultants clearly demonstrates the constitutional failures,” the complaint states.

In a testy hearing on the matter last month, attorneys for the state argued the association lacks standing to bring the suit in the first place — suggesting that the provisions in the Wyoming Constitution guaranteeing citizens “opportunities for education” and requiring the legislature to adequately fund a “complete and uniform system of public instruction” apply to students and parents, but not school teachers and staff.

“The WEA seeks a judgment on the internal performance of another branch of government, asserting the rights of third parties — students — who it does not represent,” argued Senior Assistant Attorney General Sean Towles. “It is the students who hold the right to education, and it is the students who answer it in court.”

Cheyenne attorney Pat Hacker, the association’s chief legal counsel, argued that many of the association’s members are parents of public school children themselves and thus have legitimate standing to bring the suit, further arguing educators have a legitimate interest in the quality of the public school system.

“Third graders don’t litigate on their own. Most of them don’t know how to file a complaint,” Hacker added. “We believe that WEA members are appropriate people to be raising on behalf of that third grader the rights to a quality education.”

In his ruling on the matter, Froelicher sided mostly with the plaintiffs, finding that the association’s members “have a tangible interest in the outcome of the dispute.” Should the court ultimately rule in the association’s favor and require more investments in education, the group’s members “could receive higher salaries, better professional educators, a more complete and suitable education for students, and safer, more efficient, and suitable facilities to provide and receive a public education.”

But the judge did side with the state in dismissing the association’s request for punitive damages to discourage the legislature from underfunding education in the future, and denied its request for attorney’s fees. The plaintiff may go forward with its lawsuit but it must do so at its own cost, even if the case is ultimately successful.

In a statement, Hacker said he was “pleased” with the ruling, adding that “WEA takes its obligation to protect students and schools very seriously. We look forward to explaining the merits of our case in court.”

Representatives for Gov. Mark Gordon declined to comment on the judge’s ruling, citing the ongoing litigation. When the lawsuit was first filed, Gordon had called it “unfortunate,” noting his office had already established an advisory group to assess educational needs in the state.

Gordon “hope[s] that this lawsuit will not distract from this important effort to determine exactly what it is that the Wyoming people want their education system to deliver a key element of school funding,” the August statement added.

That so-called Reimagine and Innovate the Delivery of Education Initiative, also known as RIDE, released its final report earlier this week. Among the recommendations were a shift to “student-centered learning,” which prioritizes students’ subject mastery over instruction time, and the development of more opportunities for career and technical education outside of four-year colleges.

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