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School choice, early childhood education funding packaged together

Joint Education Committee will consider bill that would set aside public funds for private schools, including early childhood education.

The Legislature’s Education Committee’s 2023 interim priorities include studying school choice and early childhood education. (MissMessie/FlickrCC)

By Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee will consider a measure Tuesday that would set aside public money for private and alternative schools and help pay for early childhood education. 

The draft legislation would authorize what are known as “education savings accounts,” financed by general fund dollars. Under the bill, Wyoming parents who meet certain income qualifications would be eligible for up to $3,000 a year to pay for costs associated with their childrens’ preschool education or non-public-school expenses. 

The committee will hear testimony and public comment on the proposal during its Aug. 8 meeting in Cheyenne.  

Rep. Albert Sommers. (Wyoming Legislature)

Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) brought the bill. 

“I look at it really as a compromise between those that want early childhood funding and those that want funding to go to private schools,” Sommers, the speaker of the House and a former committee member, said. Early childhood programs and literacy and school choice are No. 2 and 3 on the committee’s interim priorities, respectively.  

As the “parental choice” movement gains steam in conservative political circles, his attempt also represents what may be a more palatable version of twin education bills that failed in the 2023 session. Senate File 143 – Wyoming freedom scholarship act-2, sponsored by Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), and a similar House version proposed to give families $6,000 per student to go toward tuition at any school or educational expenses. 

That would have marked a major shift in Wyoming’s school funding model by redirecting federal mineral royalties from the School Foundation Program Account, which funds Wyoming’s public schools, to a new education savings account fund for families choosing to opt out of public school. The Legislative Service Office estimated that move would have shifted more than $100 million from Wyoming’s public school account in its first three years. 

Growing movement 

ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive public funds in government-authorized savings accounts for expenses like private school tuition or homeschooling supplies. 

Thirteen states, including Montana, Utah and Arizona, have ESAs. Most have been enacted since 2020. At the end of the 2022-23 school year, roughly 63,000 students, or .12% of the nation’s 50 million public school students, were participating in an ESA program, according to EdChoice

The growing number of ESA states are part of a broader parents’ rights push favored by conservatives. Advocates say the accounts allow parents to tailor education to their children’s specific needs, and in keeping with a family’s particular values, in a way that isn’t subject to the rules of the public school system. 

The Legislature’s Education Committee is considering funding accounts that qualified parents could use for alternative education like home school. (MissMessie/FlickrCC)

Skeptics worry about accountability and a system not subject to educational regulations, arguing the money would be better spent in strengthening public education. 

Sommers designed his legislation specifically to avoid diverting public education funds; the bill proposes a $40 million general fund appropriation to create the account, as opposed to financing the program with School Foundation Program Account dollars. 

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder, who was elected in 2022, has been a vocal proponent of school choice. 

“The Superintendent continues to support education savings accounts and looks forward to this discussion,” Wyoming Department of Education Communications Director Linda Finnerty told WyoFile in an email. 

Lawmakers passed a bill in March creating the independent Wyoming Charter School Authorizing Board to oversee the approval of new charter schools. That board, which consists of three Degenfelder-appointed members, holds its first public meeting Thursday. 

How the law would work

The 29-page draft legislation offers guidance into how the ESA account would be set up and administered. Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction would play a major role. Parents would enter into an agreement with the superintendent, who would then oversee the allocation of funds for qualifying expenses. 

Any child who is a Wyoming resident, whose household income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level and who meets several other criteria would be eligible for an ESA. The child has to be at least 3 years old, but not have graduated from high school or completed an equivalent certificate. 

Tuition and fees at qualifying nonpublic schools, tutoring services not provided by family, special-education services, textbooks or other instructional materials, school uniforms, fees for summer education or after-school programs, exam fees and other expenses would all qualify for ESA coverage. 

ESAs should support students who can demonstrate financial need, Sommers said, hence the income qualification. 

“Then the other is, it should be able to be tacked to an early childhood program as well as K-12 program because we all know that early childhood [education] returns like three to one on its investment,” he said. “So that’s the goal is, can we come together kind of on a more comprehensive package and see if we can get it through.”

Wyoming lawmakers are studying early childhood education during the 2023 interim. (Firsthattiesburg.com/FlickrCC)

The superintendent of public instruction would also be tasked with establishing a certification process for education service providers, which would be required to instruct K-12 students in, at minimum, reading, writing, mathematics, civics, history, literature and science. The bill also includes language for audits and handling any misused funds. 

The bill authorizes the WDE two full-time employees to help administer the program. It envisions the state superintendent would begin accepting ESA applications no later than Jan. 1, 2025. 

The Joint Education Committee meets Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. in Cheyenne, and the meeting is available to stream online. Members will also discuss the charter school authorizing board, teacher retention and another parental rights bill regarding classroom discussion of issues like gender identity.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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