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Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER — A bill that allows applications to create charter schools in Wyoming to circumvent school districts has passed into law without Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature.

The legislation allows the State Loan and Investment Board to approve a charter school. Typically, local school districts have approved charter schools in the state.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, sailed through both chambers of the Legislature with just a handful of amendments. But Gordon left his signature off the legislation — not vetoing it but not supporting it either.

In a four-page letter to legislative leaders explaining his decision, Gordon described the law as an “imperfect” “political document” but added he had confidence in lawmakers’ ability to correct the legislation before it takes effect next year.

The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee will discuss charter schools as an interim topic ahead of next legislative session.

“I believe this bill works hard to correct impressions more than actual circumstances,” Gordon wrote. “If there are structural impediments in Wyoming law that discourage charter schools, those should be identified and addressed.”

Gordon’s letter offers support for improving the environment for charter schools in Wyoming but raises a handful of concerns over the law as written.

The law allows charter schools to potentially be exempt from teaching standards requirements and oversight from the State Board of Education.

“This bill seemingly makes it easier for charters to be established outside the state’s rigorous educational parameters,” Gordon wrote.

He added existing law does allow for a charter to appeal to the Board of Education if a district denies an application, but no entity has used that appeal process.

This legislation removes the Board of Education from that role and gives the State Loan and Investment Board the authority. Gordon wondered in his letter why the Board of Education was not an appropriate body to respond to those applications.

Beyond logistical challenges, Gordon’s letter suggested the bill could invite legal challenges.

“One concern unique to Wyoming might be whether charter schools established under this legislation would stand up to constitutional scrutiny,” Gordon wrote.

The Wyoming Supreme Court in 1995 created a precedent that has guided the state’s educational system since. That decision established a constitutional obligation for the state to provide equal education to all.

Under this law, charter schools do not need to be funded with state dollars to the same degree public schools are.

“On its face, it would seem this provision has the potential to create a significant funding disparity for students attending charter schools compared to those attending district schools,” Gordon wrote. “The questions arising under this new system when related to the Campbell decision are not well understood and could actually raise the cost of education in Wyoming at a time when we already know education funding is structurally unsustainable over the long term.”

The legislative committee that will consider charter schools as an interim topic will consider this bill specifi cally. That committee expects to forward legislation on the topic.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Wyoming could do much to improve its support for school choice, which has gained momentum in the state over the last several years.

“While Wyoming’s law does not contain a cap on public charter school growth, it allows only district authorizers and provides little autonomy, insufficient accountability, and inequitable funding,” the alliance wrote in a review of the state’s charter infrastructure.

Five charter schools are authorized in the state: two in Laramie, two in Cheyenne and one in Riverton.

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