In an ambitious study that seeks to examine state education spending down to the school level, a new analysis of K-12 expenses in Wyoming shows that while per-pupil spending has swelled to one of the highest rates in the country, schools devoted a significant portion of their money to raising teacher salaries rather than hiring more educators.
Spurred by state supreme court decisions dating back to 1980 declaring the state’s school finance system unconstitutional, Wyoming legislators have nearly doubled the amount of aid for education in recent years, from $576 million in 1999 to more than $1 billion now, said Sen. Hank Coe, a Republican and the chairman of his chamber’s education committee.
In an attempt to figure out how school districts were using their money, legislators asked national consultants on school finance to examine each school during the 2006-07 academic year and to look at class sizes, staffing levels, and spending on items such as administration, transportation, and food service. The state educates about 84,600 public school students.
Funding allocated to districts for 2006-07 was based on a model that set goals for lowering class sizes, hiring tutors for struggling students, adding instructional coaches for teachers, and increasing the number of teachers in core subjects such as math and English.
The study found that school districts, collectively, had enough money to hire about 200 additional teachers for a statewide teaching force of 7,272 at the start of the school year, a figure that excludes special education teachers. But, instead, districts mostly chose to spend their money on salary raises for existing teachers. The average teacher salary in Wyoming was $39,364 in the 2002-03 school year; in 2006-07, the average salary rose to $51,077. The 11,400-student Natrona school district, in Casper, Wyo., increased its average salary over the same period to $63,112, from $41,164.
“If there’s one thing that stands out, it’s that districts have chosen not to increase [the number of] teachers, but to pay their teachers better,” Sen. Coe said. He worries that schools may, in the future, clamor for even more money because they need to hire additional teachers.
The report, and the funding model, were crafted by Lawrence O. Picus and Associates, whose key members are Mr. Picus, a professor at the University of Southern California, and Allan Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their firm conducted a similar, smaller-scale study in Arkansas, where they found in a preliminary analysis that districts also spent their money to increase teacher salaries, and to boost the number of electives. (“As Budgets Swell, Spending Choices Get New Scrutiny,” March 21, 2007).
In Wyoming, researchers plan to visit every school in the state. Already, on-site interviews in 187 schools were completed for the preliminary report, the first half of a two-year study. The researchers will visit the remaining 175 of the state’s schools in the coming school year
Wyoming districts get the largest part of their state aid in the form of a block grant, which gives administrators leeway in how they spend the money. Although districts weren’t required to implement the model on which their funding was based, administrators followed the suggestions in many cases. Legislators set aside money specifically for districts to hire instructional facilitators, or coaches for teachers, and districts did add those positions to their staffs. School districts, on average, also came close to hitting the target for class sizes, which is a pupil-teacher ratio of 16-to-1 for core classes in elementary school and 21-to-1 for grades 6-12. However, the report notes that while average improved, a wide disparity in class sizes remained among individual districts, and additional teachers could have helped to narrow that gap.
“This has really gotten schools to examining how they organize for improvement,” said Mr. Picus, who presented the report to Wyoming legislators on Monday. “They probably now have enough money to do what they need to do. Already, we’re pleased to see they’re making progress.”
The finance consultants found that, as a percentage of total district expenses, school districts didn’t increase their spending on administration, operations, and food, although spending on transportation and maintenance increased slightly.
But there were worrisome trends, the report says: In addition to not hiring as many teachers as they could have, districts didn’t hire enough teacher-certified tutors to help struggling students. Instead, they apparently relied on instructional aides, who usually are not certified teachers.
Mr. Picus said it’s too soon to tell whether the added money will translate into academic gains. He said the 2006-07 academic year was the first in which legislators used a funding model that emphasized adding more core-subject teachers and student tutors. The state also is only in its second year of a revamped standardized-testing system.
What’s already clear is how high Wyoming ranks nationally in per-pupil spending. In 2002, the state spent about $9,970 per pupil; for the 2005-06 school year, spending grew by 25 percent, to $12,479. That would rank the state fourth, behind New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest education finance report, which was released last month and based on fiscal 2005 data.
Within the state, per-pupil spending varies widely because of factors such as school enrollment, the district’s geographic size (which can increase transportation costs), the age and experience of the teaching force (which affects salaries), and adjustments for areas with a higher cost of living. The range stretches from a low of $10,656 in the 2,500-student Lincoln School District No. 2, along the Wyoming-Idaho border, to a high of $32,978 in one of the state’s smallest districts, Washakie School District No. 2 in the small town of Ten Sleep, with 74 students.