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It's Nearly High Noon for Wyo. Officials Facing Finance Deadline

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Cheyenne, Wyo.

Here in the capital of the vast, scenic Cowboy State, lawmakers are under the gun to meet what is nationally among the most far-reaching school finance mandates a high court has issued.

In a special session expected to continue this week, state legislators are racing to meet a July 1 deadline to come up with a system that will provide equal education opportunities to Wyoming's 100,000 students.

Four school districts sued the state in 1992, charging that its funding formula, based largely on the number of classrooms in a district rather than on enrollment, favored sparse, rural schools and shorted larger districts with more crowded classrooms. The plaintiffs were later joined by a fifth district and the Wyoming Education Association.

After the case moved through the lower courts, the state supreme court unanimously declared in November 1995 that the spending disparities among Wyoming's 49 school districts created unconstitutional differences in educational opportunities.

The state constitution "requires the legislature to create and maintain a system providing an equal opportunity to a quality education," the high court said in its 54-page decision. It ordered the legislature to define, design, and provide funds for a "basket of educational goods and services" guaranteeing each student in the state "a complete, proper, quality education."

The justices gave lawmakers until July 1 of this year to come up with a new plan. ("Court Again Strikes Down Wyo. Finance System," Nov. 22, 1995.)

Insiders Stunned

The scope of the decision stunned many in the state, because students here generally fare well on standardized tests. Poverty and failure are not part of the education lexicon, and locals take pride in the fact that few children attend private schools.

"It's one of the most progressive school finance decisions ever," said Patrick E. Hacker, a Cheyenne lawyer who represents the Wyoming Education Association. "Wyoming has put education at the same level as free speech and freedom of religion."

The Wyoming high court's decision rippled across the national waters because, unlike court orders in any other state, it asked lawmakers to specifically define and assess the costs--district by district--of what constitutes a fair, equitable, adequate, and quality education.

"Here's a state that spends a fair amount of money on schools, and stacks up pretty well against other states on assessments," said Terry Whitney, an education policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

But despite the Wyoming system's relative success, the supreme court ordered lawmakers to overhaul it, Mr. Whitney said.

Legislative Flurry

The court-imposed time line hurled Wyoming's part-time, citizen legislature into a frenzy of finance-related activity. Fifty lawmakers--many of whom had little experience with education legislation--were appointed to six committees to work on fulfilling the court order.

A San Francisco consulting firm, Management, Analysis, and Planning Associates, was hired to help devise a new formula.

The firm came up with a plan based mainly on costs per student enrolled, rather than classroom units, and recommended that the state, which now spends about $600 million a year on public education, spend about $50 million more. ("Wyo. Begins To Consider Finance Intricacies," March 12, 1997.)

The firm's recommendations were adopted by the legislature in April and have been incorporated into a single, 92-page school reform bill--the subject of this month's special session.

'Let's Have a Plan'

State leaders have endorsed reform efforts, saying the plan will raise academics to a new level.

"The 'basket' is about high standards rather than simply seat time--what it takes to meet those standards, how to assess them," said Judy Catchpole, Wyoming's superintendent of public instruction. "We see this as an opportunity to meet high standards in core subjects, no matter where you live."

Republican Gov. Jim Geringer, who is following the process closely, has asked lawmakers to stay focused on academics, rather than dollars.

"Dollars and the system to allocate them has drawn the most publicity," he said in a speech when the full legislature reconvened May 31.

"Money matters in education," the governor said. "But it is not an end unto itself."

Lawmakers echo that philosophy.

"This is not about dollars," said Sen. Rich Cathcart, a Republican who has been working nonstop on the new plan. "My thinking is, let's not just dump money at the problem. Let's have a plan."

But critics argue that the additional $50 million will not be enough for some school districts to attain high academic standards.

Jean Hayek, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the reform bill would punish small districts, several of which could end up with less state aid than they now receive, and favor large ones.

"They really missed the boat on this one," she said. "The court order was very simple: Define a great education, estimate the cost, and find the funds.

"The legislature needs to come up with a plan where there are no losers. We can't do this halfway."

With "losers," Ms. Hayek said, comes the possibility of ending up back in court.

Finding the Money

All phases of drafting the new finance formula have been fairly contentious, but even more controversial than the "how much?" question is the problem of where that money will come from.

Lawmakers, educators, and constituents in this tax-averse state have been debating how best to generate new education dollars for months now.

The legislature is considering a temporary increase in the state sales tax from 4 cents to 4.5 cents, beginning in October. Lawmakers say that could raise about $41 million a year for schools.

Other proposals include a new cigarette tax, a plan that would redistribute a portion of local property-tax revenue, and new taxes on the state's mineral resources.

But consensus on a long-term payment plan is a long way off.

"We've been working over a year, nonstop, on this issue, and have put in a good-faith effort to meet the court's deadline," said Dave Nelson, a staff lawyer for the legislature. "But there are a lot of [funding] proposals out there. It's going to be a while before it's all worked out."

In the end, all here hope that the long, hard process of funding reform will be a successful, one-time-only affair.

"This is about equity, opportunity, and access," said Ms. Catchpole, the state superintendent. "If reform is done right, it's an opportunity to improve learning for our kids and make every dollar that we spend accountable and useful."

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