A measure to create “education savings accounts” using state funds for parents to pay for costs associated with their children’s preschool education or non-public-school expenses is headed to the legislative session, despite concerns it may not be constitutional.
The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee advanced the bill on Wednesday. Under the measure, Wyoming parents whose household income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level — for a family of four, that equates to $75,000 annually — would be eligible for up to $5,000 a year for a child’s qualifying expenses. The money can be spent on things like tuition, tutoring, after-school-program fees and travel expenses.
Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), who is not a member of the committee, brought the legislation. He calls it a compromise for those clamoring for more early childhood funding and those who want to support parental choice for options like private school or homeschooling.
“In my opinion, what makes this bill really good is the fact that we bring in early childhood,” Sommers told the committee.
Identifying policy options to improve early childhood education was the committee’s No. 2 priority for the legislative off-season, known as the interim. School choice was the No. 6 priority.
As the parental choice movement gains steam in conservative political circles, the bill 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 would have given families $6,000 per student to go toward tuition at any non-governmental school or for related 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 the state’s public schools, to a new education savings account fund for families choosing to opt out of public school.
Sommers’ bill would use $40 million from the general fund to create the account, as opposed to financing the program with School Foundation Program Account dollars.
Under the bill, ESA students must be disenrolled from public schools, but are still subject to statewide assessments or a nationally equivalent test. The students must learn reading, writing, math, civics, history, literature and science. The money would be given out on a first-come, first-served basis, with the lion’s share, 70%, set aside for K-12 students.
Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction would be tasked with considering applications and administering the program, as well as investigating reports of misuse of ESA funds.
The current schools chief, Megan Degenfelder, supports the bill, her Chief of Staff Dickey Shanor told the committee. “She generally has the philosophy that increasing options and choice in education results in better outcomes for students, and that’s really what we aspire to accomplish with any policies,” he said.
Detractors and supporters
The Wyoming Education Association, which advocates for the state’s teachers, does support school choice, but Government Relations Director Tate Mullen warned that his group’s “independent analysis determines that there’s no defensible argument that could be made to support the claim that the bill is consistent with the provisions of our state constitution.”
Specifically, he pointed to the use of public dollars to pay for private education.
The design of the bill, Mullen said, “is to establish another taxpayer-funded welfare program to provide education services to low-income families as a necessary support of the poor.” But families already have free access to public education, he said.
“The intent of our state’s founding fathers are abundantly clear, given the numerous and explicit provisions within our constitution prohibiting taxpayer dollars flowing to private and parochial institutions,” Mullen said. He also noted concerns regarding fraud, misuse of funds and accountability.
Constitutionality concerns have prompted lawsuits from the group in the past. The Wyoming Education Association in 2022 sued the state, claiming it violated its constitutional duty to adequately fund public education. That case has yet to be tried in court.
(Disclosure: Mullen is the brother of WyoFile reporter Maggie Mullen. She did not report on or write this story.)
Supporters of the bill, including several private school representatives, also testified. Melissa Whelan, principal at St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School in Casper, said empowering parents to make choices about their children’s education benefits many aspects of society.
“I would just encourage that the committee consider allowing every child to have a choice, whether they choose our school, they choose homeschool, they choose another private school that can provide their child with the education that they need in terms of their special needs,” Whelan said.
The account would enable more families to send their children to her school, where tuition starts at about $5,000, she said.
Casper mom Courtney Ladenburger’s children had good experiences at private Catholic school. “Although my husband and I made sacrifices to provide a private education for our children, there are so many others that can’t make those first steps through the door of a school due to financial constraints,” she said. “Why should not all Wyoming families have a choice?”
Changes and attempts
Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) attempted to pass an amendment that would have essentially replaced the measure with a bill that failed to pass the session last year. “This is the real school choice bill,” he said. His version stripped out the pre-K component, did away with income qualifications and restored religious-freedom language and homeschool considerations, he said.
The committee did not pass it.
Gutting early childhood education, for one thing, would not likely be palatable to constituents, Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) said. “Because I think a lot of people desperately need this.”
Several amendments did pass, however, including one from Rep. Martha Lawley (R-Worland) tweaking the model so that 70% of ESA funds go to K-12 students and 30% go to early childhood education.
Provenza voted against it, noting there are “fewer things [with] greater payback for what we put into early childhood education in terms of what we spend in other government funding.”
The committee also bumped the fiscal allotment from $3,000 to $5,000 per child.
During the two-day Cheyenne meeting, the committee’s final scheduled gathering before the upcoming session, members also advanced Parental rights in education-1, a bill setting out requirements for school districts to provide parents notice of information regarding students. In August, lawmakers removed controversial language from that bill regarding so-called “don’t say gay” stipulations.
Committee-sponsored bills are much more likely to become law than bills sponsored by individual legislators.