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Lawmakers Show Little Appetite For Big School Changes in Wyo.

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Ordered by the state supreme court to step back and define "the proper education for a Wyoming child," state lawmakers' answer seems to be: the one we're already providing.

The high court found Wyoming's school finance system unconstitutional last year and ordered the legislature to come up with a new one. The decision was especially noteworthy because the court told the lawmakers to first determine the elements of a complete "education package," and then figure out how to pay for it. ("Court Again Strikes Down Wyo. Finance System," Nov. 22, 1995.)

While the decision could have been an occasion to thoroughly overhaul the education system, there was little appetite for radical changes in Wyoming, which takes pride in its above-average schools.

The two legislative committees assigned to define a proper education and to recommend a governance system to deliver it have issued reports calling for only modest changes. These include lengthening the school year from 175 to 180 days, requiring teachers to know how to use computers and other technology, and setting up mentor programs for teachers.

Three more committees are still wrestling with much tougher issues: figuring out what is now spent on education, how to pay for the future system, and how to provide adequate facilities.

State lawmakers have until next July to craft a new finance system--a tight deadline that has politicians in the sparsely populated state working at a brisk pace.

Control at Issue

A pivotal issue for many residents has been satisfying the court's mandate while preserving the state's long history of local control of schools.

In its decision last year, the supreme court said a high-quality education system likely would include a uniform statewide curriculum. Lawmakers are hoping, however, that Wyoming's new "accreditation standards" for schools will pass muster.

The standards, also set to take effect in July, include a common core of knowledge and skills for students and benchmarks for teachers' salaries. But the plan stops short of defining a curriculum.

"None of us wants to see the state come in and say, 'Well, this is the method or program you need to do,'" said Jean Hayek, the president of the Wyoming Education Association.

The boldest recommendations to emerge from the two committees, Ms. Hayek said, concern placing limits on class sizes. One committee has proposed that school districts limit class size to 20 students "when practicable."

But another committee urged that class sizes in kindergarten through 3rd grade average 15 students, and serve no more than 20. For grades 4-12, it calls for an average size of 18 students per class and no more than 23.

Lawmakers also are proposing a new statewide assessment in reading, writing, and mathematics, to be administered to students in the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades. The tests would be Wyoming's first mandatory assessments geared to state standards.

Under the 1990 legislation that created the state's accreditation standards, local districts have been developing their own tests to match their curricula. The state teachers' association believes spending money to create a new statewide test would be duplicative.

Jerry Maurer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said the statewide assessment "sounds fine" to his membership, as long as there is no statewide curriculum.

Money Battles

The real battles are likely to come over the specifics of funding schools, observers say.

The state's method of distributing money to its 49 districts was found to be unconstitutional because it favored smaller districts. The method of financing construction also was struck down as inequitable.

A California consulting firm is now conducting a study to determine what districts and the state now spend for schools.

Once that work is complete, lawmakers can begin to sketch out how to more equitably pay for schools, based on their new definition of the education program that should be provided for each child.

The state also must assess the condition of its facilities and set standards for adequate school buildings, as required by the court. Also at issue is the cost of deferred maintenance to keep schools in good shape.

Few states have been required by courts to so carefully scrutinize their facilities, said Dave Nelson, a staff lawyer for the state legislature.

Lawmakers are wrestling with how to handle school bond issues while they write a new financing system. The committee looking at capital construction has proposed halting any pending bond issues, but no firm decisions will be made until the legislature convenes next year.

Also on the table is a proposal to create a statewide tax and a school construction authority to finance and oversee construction. Another proposal that would allow districts to issue bonds, subject to some equalization from the state, also has been discussed.

Wyoming lawmakers are expected to deal with issues such as authorizing a study of school facilities during their regular session, which starts in January. But observers expect that a special session will be held next spring to put the final touches on the new finance plan.

One big hurdle for lawmakers will be meeting the court's mandate that education spending correspond to the state's classroom expectations--a calculation no state currently makes as it sets school funding.

"I don't think very many people are optimistic," Mr. Maurer of the school boards' association said. "It all boils down to funding. You can have the best idea, but if the money isn't there to fund it, it isn't going to happen."

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