For the last two years, Laramie County has been represented by a monolithic cast of Republican legislators. For the first time since I graduated from the University of Wyoming Law School and moved to Laramie County in 1982, there was not one Democrat member of our county delegation.
This pattern has been repeated across this state, with few exceptions. Wyoming is effectively a one-party state.
With a delegation that comprised one-sixth of the House and Senate and included several chairpersons of critical committees, you might think Laramie County’s delegation would have used those positions to advance solutions to some of the very real problems in our growing community. You would be wrong; a sad fact illustrated by their performance on one issue – public education.
There is no disputing the fact that Wyoming’s public schools hold a special place in our state. The Wyoming Constitution was written and adopted by people who had the civic commitment necessary to transform a territory into a state. Article 1, Section 23 says, “The right of the citizens to opportunities for education should have practical recognition. The legislature shall suitably encourage means and agencies calculated to advance the sciences and liberal arts.”
Article 7, Section 1 requires the Legislature to fund a uniform system of free public education in fulfillment of this fundamental right to education. "The legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction, embracing free elementary schools of every needed kind and grade, a university with such technical and professional departments as the public good may require and the means of the state allow, and such other institutions as may be necessary."
In 1980, the Wyoming Supreme Court held that the right to an equal education was a fundamental right of every school-age child in Wyoming, and charged the Legislature with the tasks to develop a system to give schools the tools to fulfill their functions and to develop a means of funding those schools. At first, the Legislature balked at these directives and incited a series of lawsuits, as school districts fought to make the Legislature take the steps necessary to develop the models and plans that would make the constitutional promise of “a complete and uniform system of public instruction” a reality. In 2008, that litigation finally came to an end, when the Legislature adopted and courts finally approved a formula of state funding that put us on a path to make that promise a reality.
However, we live in a dynamic world. The basic assumptions and variables incorporated in any model must be updated for from time to time in order to accommodate today’s circumstances. The work of the Legislature was not done in 2008. In fact, it was just beginning. It was and is the continuing duty of our Legislature to measure today’s educational needs and to make necessary recalibrations to ensure resources are available to meet those needs.
The future success of the public education system cannot be assumed and has not been assured. It depends upon the good faith commitment of current legislators to honor the promises enshrined in our Constitution and defined by the Supreme Court, promises that were made long before most of them were even elected.
Recent sessions of the Legislature have seen the emergence of a bloc of representatives and senators who have seized the process of recalibration as a tool to rewrite the promises in our constitution. Rather than embrace their constitutional responsibilities to the schoolchildren of Wyoming, they have ignored the recommendations of their own consultants, adopted temporary budgetary fixes, and refused to consider rational solutions to provide secure revenue streams needed to pay for the facilities, tools and staff that our students need to compete in a complex world.
Rather than honor their constitutional mandate to ensure a fair, complete and uniform system of education, the Legislature debated rewriting their constitutional duty and ignored the unrefuted evidence of need. Instead, they generated a smokescreen of imaginary issues to distract attention from their failures to address the real issue of school finance, mounting attacks on transgender student-athletes, raising false alarms about critical race theory and demanding book bans, rather than working together toward solutions.
It now appears that Wyoming is once again on the cusp of more school finance litigation. The Legislature’s refusal to address its responsibility has spawned a new lawsuit filed by the Wyoming Education Association. School districts, including our Laramie County districts, may be drawn into another lengthy vortex, particularly if the Legislature continues to bury its collective head in the sand.
But there is an alternative. The voters of this county and of our state have a choice. Does it make sense to send the same people back to the Legislature, or it is time to send people who are willing to find the means to fulfill the constitutional promises that have been made to our children? It is our choice, and we should exercise it.