Wyoming doesn’t need to cram 25 kids into a classroom

© 2017-Kemmerer Gazette

When I was in the sixth grade I decided I wanted to be a teacher. My career goal was so firm I couldn’t even imagine doing anything else with my life. I chalk it up now to the influences of the great teachers I had in elementary school.

As I entered my junior year in high school, though, I abandoned any thought of teaching. The reason was pretty clear: I decided I really hated school. The thought of spending my adult life trapped in a room with kids like myself and my classmates sounded like the worst job in the world.

It’s not, as I’ve learned from several friends who chose to become teachers. It takes many special talents to teach children and fortunately I recognized that I didn’t have any of them. I probably would have spent most of my day showing movies and visiting the teachers’ lounge to keep a coffee buzz going.

The profession is on my mind these days because it appears many Wyoming teachers may fall victim to large statewide budget cuts. Some will have to leave the state to continue their careers. Others may opt to change jobs and start over.

Both options are lose-lose propositions for teachers and the state. And the ones hurt most of all are our children.

Some legislators would like education reform in Wyoming to be entirely budget-based. The latest estimates indicate they will have to cut about $260 million from education annually, thanks mostly to the downturn in the minerals industry and our continued failure to diversify the state’s economy.

During better economic times, Wyoming invested heavily to improve public schools. The state gave districts enough money to raise teachers’ pay from the bottom of the national scale to near the top. The state also built a lot of new schools, upsetting some residents who thought we were overbuilding and wasting existing facilities that had a lot of life left in them.

A flush budget wasn’t the only driver. In 1995 the Wyoming Supreme Court issued the first of several rulings that mandated the state provide all students with an equal opportunity for a quality education.

In 2011 the Legislature decided that a 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio for K-3 would be the new standard for Wyoming classrooms. It was close to the national average and it made sense. For years studies have shown that smaller classes help boost academic achievements. Students get more individualized attention and interact more with their teacher. Minority and low-income students have particularly made significant academic gains as a result of smaller class sizes.

There are benefits for elementary teachers, too. With fewer students they have more flexibility with instructional methods. They also generally have fewer discipline problems and find students less distracted by their classmates and more able to concentrate on learning.

But earlier this year the Legislature took a 16-to-1 ratio reporting requirement off the books. Previously districts that could not meet the standard for various reasons had to apply for waivers to have a slightly higher ratio, like 18-to-1. Waivers were typically granted provided districts were making progress toward the goal. Such waivers are no longer needed.

This legislative action was the first hint that something was up. Educators began to worry that the state would make up a big chunk of the funding shortfall by increasing classroom sizes.

Two bills to do exactly that were filed but quickly died. Perhaps, education proponent hoped, the education lobby could could keep the threat of larger classes at bay.

Recently, though, the School Facilities Commission shattered that hope when it voted to allow a student-teacher ratio of up to 25-to-1. Members said the ratio only changes the classroom capacity for K-3 students, and doesn’t mandate class sizes get that big. They claim the new rule is merely to enable full use of available square footage at schools. 

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D, SD-9, Laramie) doesn’t accept that answer, and neither should teachers, administrators and parents. Once some districts decide they can cram up to 25 students in a classroom, they will likely do just that.

Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, told the commission that many schools will never reach the preferred 16-to-1 ratio “because now the school facilities guidelines say [25-to-1] is sufficient.” In other words, a school that reaches capacity at the 16-to-1 ratio may have a harder time convincing lawmakers to expand classroom capacity, because by the School Facilities Commission’s standards the building will still have space.

Rothfuss agreed, and charged that the executively-appointed commission is effectively taking away policy discretion that should belong to the democratically-elected Legislature.

The state senator also complained that the commission made its decision without considering any public input. Rothfuss is a member of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which is reviewing the current state funding model and will make recommendations to the Legislature. Several educators and parents have told the committee they object to the state developing a funding model that will cut school budgets by increasing class sizes.

Republican legislative leaders led by Senate President Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton) maintain that budget cuts must be made before lawmakers even consider increasing any taxes or pursuing other revenue-generating methods. Bebout has said at least $200 million could be cut from the education budget.

How can the GOP get to that number? One sure way to whittle down the shortfall would be to increase class sizes. A Legislative Service Office analysis said that increasing the standard K-3 class size to 19 students in the next fiscal year would save the state $44.7 million. That would be accomplished by laying off up to 589 teachers. A ratio of 20 to 1, according to the LSO, would equate to $57 million in savings and the loss of 745 teachers statewide.

It’s easy to see why teachers are worried about legislators turning to increased class sizes. Meanwhile, the School Facilities Commission has just given the Legislature cover to do precisely that by giving lawmakers an excuse to raise the standard 16-to-1 ratio by up to nine students in each classroom.

If that happens it will greatly increase the workload of teachers who stay employed by their respective districts. There will be no money for raises for the survivors, of course, at least until the mineral industry sufficiently rebounds. Even then legislators would likely be wary of spending more money on education after this next round of cuts.

But education advocates may be able to convince the Legislature not to try to fill classrooms to the brim with more kids. Greatly increasing the standard K-3 classroom size could trigger another lawsuit against the state. Surely the state’s highest court would be able to see that the state’s action would be based solely on cutting costs at the expense of providing a quality education for Wyoming students.

Education lawsuits are expensive to defend, time-consuming and cause more headaches for legislators who — if the state loses — must then try to fix a system the court has once again deemed broken.

Hopefully the state can develop a better way to keep funding schools at the proper level. They should start by looking at potential tax increases. I’m convinced residents would be willing to pay a little more in some areas if the tax revenue were invested in our future… our children.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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