The struggle over school finance in Wyoming is a battle that has waged on since the 1970s and has been greatly influenced by school funding lawsuits. In 1980, the Wyoming Supreme Court found the funding system unconstitutional in Washakie County School District v. Herschler, 606 P.2d 310. In 1995, in Campbell County School District v. State (Campbell I), 907 P.2d 1238, the court again declared the state school funding system unconstitutional, on equity and adequacy grounds. The Campbell court provided remedial guidelines to the legislature based on the need to prepare high school graduates to become equipped for their future roles as citizens, participants in the political system, and competitors both economically and intellectually. The court also indicated that the opportunity for a quality education should include small class sizes; ample, appropriate provision for at-risk students; and meaningful standards and assessments. Finding that the state constitution established education as the legislature’s “paramount priority,” the court directed the legislature to determine the cost of a quality education and fund it.
Since the Campbell I decision, the legislature has labored diligently to establish a constitutional system of education finance, even in the face of revenue shortfalls.
On February 23, 2001, the Wyoming Supreme Court, in its second Campbell decision, found the state’s new cost-based education finance system capable of fulfilling the Wyoming constitution’s guarantee of an education “appropriate for the times.” The court concluded that the methodology used to develop the costs on which the new system is based was sound, and it reviewed the challenged components of the funding system in detail. Most elements of the system, including class size and teacher salaries, passed constitutional muster, but a few items, the most noteworthy of which is capital funding, were sent back to the legislature for further consideration. The court also emphasized the need for a review of all of the cost-based factors every five years and inflation adjustments at least every two years.
Finding that some school districts’ unfunded capital construction needs “continue to mount,” the court judged the capital portion of the new system inadequate. It also rejected certain adjustments in the system that were not cost-based and directed the legislature to revise them. For example, the court recognized the difficulty of determining the actual costs of educating at-risk students, but held that, until the state develops a way of assessing these costs, it must fully fund the “actual and necessary costs” associated with these students.
On January 8, 2008, the Wyoming Supreme Court found that the State was fully in compliance with the constitutional mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient education structure,” and it terminated its jurisdiction of the litigation. Specifically, the Court upheld legislative changes regarding at-risk students, small schools and other items, clarified aspects of its prior decision dealing with the calculation of cost of living adjustments, and upheld the new capital construction system the legislature had adopted since Campbell II. The State had created a School Facilities Commission (“SFC”) responsible of adopting standards and determining, in consultation with school districts, what facilities should be constructed. (Since 2002, the legislature had earmarked about $990 million for capital school construction). The District court had been concerned that as of the time of trial in 2005, little actual construction had been approved, but the Supreme Court concluded that the remaining capital construction issues should be determined on a case-by-case basis through the school district’s right to appeal decisions of the SFC.
Wyoming Teachers Association v. State
In August, 2022, the Wyoming Teachers Association(WEA) filed a 71-page complaint alleging that the state had in recent years failed to follow through and update the “cost-based model” for funding education established by the state Supreme Court in the Campbell cases. They alleged that the current funding model allocates $7,000 per teacher below the actual costs districts must pay to fill teaching positions. As a result, the state is increasingly unable to recruit and retain qualified candidates to fill certified and classified staff positions. The lawsuit also cites “increased class sizes, aging buildings and infrastructure” and “insufficient school security measures” as problems resulting from inadequate school funding.
Plaintiffs claim that the Wyoming Supreme Court precedents require the Legislature to evaluate what the specific components of education are, such as teachers, aides, principals and supplies. They must then determine periodically whether the amount of funding is equal to the actual cost that school districts are incurring. They also argue that the Legislature must adjust the formula for inflation, and that this has not been done consistently, even in the wake of an 8.1% inflation rate going into the last legislative session.
The state promptly filed a motion to dismiss, and oral argument on their motion was held in early November, 2022. The state argued that the WEA lacks standing and that only parents or students and not teachers can bring on such a suit. They also claimed that the plaintiffs overstated the applicable constitutional requirements and that their arguments amount to simply saying lawmakers didn’t make the right decisions about school funding.
In December 2022, Laramie County District Court Judge Peter H. Froelicher denied the State’s motion to dismiss and upheld the WEA’s standing to pursue the suit. Eight school districts have also now joined the Wyoming Education Association as plaintiffs in the case.
The Court has scheduled a trial in this case for June, 2024. Judge Froelicher stated that at the trial, the plaintiffs must prove that the state has been underfunding the schools. If the plaintiffs meet that burden, the court held that the state will have to come up with a “compelling reason” for the inadequate funding because he reads the Wyoming Supreme Court’s decision in the Campbell case to mean that education is a fundamental right under the Wyoming constitution.
According to the plaintiffs, the fact that education is a fundamental constitutional right means that there is a mandatory constitutional obligation to fully fund a complete, uniform and high-quality education for students in Wyoming, and the Legislature has no discretion or option about whether to fully fund all components of that education. The WEA’s complaint stated that the Legislature can’t choose to inadequately fund education based on a claimed lack of revenue or availability of funds.
In August, 2023, the state filed a petition with the state supreme court asking them to clarify this legal issue. They stated that
While the strict scrutiny test is designed to address the equal protection
implications of the disparities at issue in those earlier cases, it remains unclear whether or how a court could logically apply such a test to evaluate challenges to the adequacy of funding the Legislature chooses to provide for education.