CHEYENNE – Although state lawmakers adjourned earlier this month without addressing Wyoming’s dire K-12 funding outlook, the Wyoming Education Association is determined to keep a solutions-oriented conversation alive.
“While education funding is a massive issue in Wyoming, it is truthfully a symptom of a much larger and more significant issue: our state’s economic management,” Tate Mullen, government relations director for the WEA, said at a virtual meeting Monday evening. “Our state’s economy has to be diversified. This doesn’t mean building on existing industries, but bringing in new industries that will provide economic stability to the state and its residents.”
Wyoming has long relied on mineral revenues to fund education, among other things, and uphold its legal obligation to provide an adequate and equitable education for all students, regardless of where they live. And because so much of the oil, gas and coal in the state is produced on federal lands, federal mineral royalties have allowed Wyomingites to access high levels of school funding without paying high taxes themselves.
But as those once reliable industries dry up, the state is at a crossroads and must find another source of revenue for schools or make drastic cuts to its widely praised model. However, the Legislature this year declined to pass a bill that would have raised sales taxes to fund education, as it tapped one-time federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to fill the gaps.
A recent survey from the University of Wyoming showed that Wyomingites, who pay some of the lowest taxes in the country, were most concerned about cuts to K-12 education, followed closely by worries about an increase in sales and property taxes.
“There seems to be a substantial disconnect between understanding the importance and value of education – which I think the people of Wyoming get. But the disconnect seems to be how those services are paid for (and) where those dollars come from,” Mullen said. “What we must address is the (lack) of political will to address this issue.”
Moving forward, the WEA said it’s working on developing a campaign to reach out to communities across the state and change the narrative about what taxation means for residents.
Taxes, Mullen said, are not a “detrimental thing.” He emphasized the need to illustrate what would happen if education funding takes a major hit over the next several years – especially in the many rural communities here.
“Education is a substantial employer across the state. If we start gutting education, not only is it detrimental to our students, but you’re enacting policies that quicken the shutting down of our smaller communities,” he said, noting the organization’s plans to reach as many stakeholders as possible through both in-person and virtual events, like the one held Monday.
He also encouraged educators and others with an interest in preserving Wyoming’s education funding system to make their opinions known through newspaper editorials and letters to their elected officials.
On top of that, Mullen said, involving people who aren’t directly involved in the education world will also be key as they move these conversations forward.
“That means including business leaders, community leaders – broad coalitions,” he said at the meeting. “We need to start inviting people who are not just educators to these types of things.”