CHEYENNE – School choice expansion could become one of the lasting legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wyoming.
Right now, Wyoming schoolchildren looking for an alternative to traditional public schools can attend private schools if their family can afford it, a statewide virtual academy or a handful of charter schools – which are privately run and publicly funded.
But the circumstances of the pandemic, which shut down schools for months last spring and redefined the look of in-person schooling this year, pushed Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, to file House Bill 106 this year.
The bill would reimburse parents for tuition and other education expenses if they choose to enroll their children in private or home school education instead of their local public school.
“Nearly a year ago now, I started having constituents come to me saying, ‘I’m still paying my property taxes, and I’m having to homeschool my child’ during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wilson said. The lawmaking session resumes Monday, but it’s not clear when the House Education Committee will hear the bill.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, Wilson’s is one of at least 89 bills filed across 29 states this year that relate to private school choice.
But Benjamin Olneck-Brown, an education research analyst with NCSL, said it’s still “hard to say” to what degree the pandemic influenced the creation of those bills or how it could affect their chances of passing into law.
But the pandemic isn’t the only reason Wilson is proposing the bill. A $300 million revenue shortfall in K-12 funding – a product of the volatile mineral industry – got her thinking, too, and it resulted in what she’s calling the Wyoming Education Options Act.
“I thought maybe I could put together a bill that benefits everybody,” Wilson said. “The bill gives parents the option to meet their child’s educational needs, and at the same time, it buffers districts from the effects of the funding cuts.”
Under the bill, parents or guardians could request that the school district in which they live reimburse them for expenses related to tutoring, tuition, fees, curriculum, supplemental materials and activities. Districts would only be allowed to reimburse parents for a maximum of 50% of the amount it gets per pupil, and they would be able to count that child in their Average Daily Membership roster, which affects how much money districts get from the state. “The school district can use those extra resources for the children who are in the public school classroom. I feel like it’s really a win-win.”
Currently, there are about 5,100 students in Wyoming who are eligible, but not enrolled in public school. If all of those students were to take advantage of the proposal, the Legislative Service Office estimates that if it were to pass, the Wyoming Education Options Act could increase the state’s School Foundation Program account – which is looking at about a $250 million deficit this year – by $64.8 million.
Wilson said she thinks that estimate is high. “I can’t imagine that even 20% of those people are going to do it. I suspect this might be about a $5 million cost,” she said.
”A lot of questions”
A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling also influenced Wilson – who sponsored a failed bill in 2015 that would have made it easier to open charter schools – to file House Bill 106.
Over the summer, the court’s opinion on Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue effectively crumbled the power of the Blaine Amendment, a clause that prevents state money from going to religious purposes – 37 state constitutions, including Wyoming’s, contain one.
“A state need not subsidize private education,” Chief Justice John Roberts opined for the majority. “But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
That cleared the way for a bill like Wilson’s to allow public dollars to pay for religious education, if parents so choose. But regardless of whether state money goes to parochial or secular instruction, the bill has raised questions about oversight of public funds.
“I’m not sure how it would all work,” said Boyd Brown, superintendent of Laramie County School District 1. He added that he doesn’t have a formal position on the bill yet, but is waiting to hear how it’s presented to the House Education Committee. “It looks like it’s pretty expensive, and we’re cutting budgets, so I’m not sure that’s something they’ll want to move forward with. I think it would give us the opportunity to work with students, but I’m not sure how the accountability would work. I have a lot of questions.”
Those concerns align with many education leaders across the state, said Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association. Like Brown, the organization has not yet taken a position on HB 106.
“I wouldn’t say there’s not necessarily support for it. What some people are OK with is that some of the funding would go to a school district,” said Farmer, who noted the opposition “comes from many different perspectives.”
“Some folks are just against the notion of public dollars going to private options. Even those who are somewhat supportive do have big concerns about the lack of accountability for those receiving the public funds,” said Farmer, adding that the WSBA’s members are generally supportive of the role private school options play in their communities. “(B)ut there is that trade-off. If you choose those private options to have greater freedom, then you don’t have the same access to public dollars.”
Beth Thompson, marketing director for St. Mary’s Catholic School in Cheyenne, said she’s in support of a tuition reimbursement program in Wyoming. Tuition at the school ranges from $4,000-$5,000, and some families qualify for assistance.
Even still, Thompson said she often talks with parents who want to send their kids to St. Mary’s, but “just can’t make it work financially.”
If HB 106 were to become law, “it would make a world of a difference,” she said. “I think we’d have a lot more kids coming to St. Mary’s.” Despite her personal interest in growing the school, Thompson said she understands the objections surrounding accountability of public dollars.
“It’s a blurred line. I’m all for religious education but others might not be,” she said.
Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, filed House Bill 147 earlier this week, which would allow parents to receive tax credits for private educational expenses. Fortner did not respond to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s request for comment on the bill, but in Thompson’s view, it “clears the blurred line” of public money going to private education.
“I think expecting everybody to pay for my child’s private education with their tax money is a tough ask,” Thompson said. “If that tax credit just impacts the person who’s sending their child to private school … that’s a much easier pill to swallow.”