Unless you’ve been buried under snow, which is a distinct possibility these days, it’s hard to miss the ongoing debate about education funding in Wyoming. The legislative session is in full swing and the topic that’s center stage is the current economic downturn and the resulting shortfall in funding.
At the heart of this debate are your fundamental rights as a citizen of Wyoming, or in this case, the fundamental rights of your children. A fundamental right is one that has been recognized as having a high degree of protection from government encroachment, one deemed to be so important, the constitutional framers, either federal or state, declared them in writing. In the U.S. Constitution, it’s called the Bill of Rights.
In the Wyoming Constitution, our fundamental rights are outlined in Article I within the Declaration of Rights. Just above your right to bear arms is Section 23: Education. The framers of the Wyoming Constitution believed that education deserved the same protections as your right to due process, a trial by jury, and of course, your right to bear arms. And a good many of us agree.
Others have expressed a different point of view, but the Wyoming Supreme Court has been clear, ruling four times between 1995-2008: Education is a fundamental right for the children of Wyoming and must be a funding priority. To ensure no further misunderstanding occurred, the Wyoming Supreme Court outlined how K-12 education must be treated in our state in three key acts:
- Act 1: The Legislature was directed to define a “basket of goods” every Wyoming child should receive.
- Act 2: The Legislature was directed to undertake cost of education studies to determine the actual cost of providing this basket for all students.
- Act 3: The Legislature was directed to fund the basket. But as Hamlet said: Ay, there’s the rub.
Over the last few years, Wyoming has seen a reduction in the energy-related revenues that fund education. This is what appears to be driving our current legislature’s desire to reduce education funding. That seems reasonable, right?
But reason isn’t always what it seems. Consider Senate Joint Resolution 9 (SJ9). Its stated purpose is to “amend the Wyoming constitution to specify that the legislature determines the adequacy of public school funding and prohibiting courts from requiring funding beyond that prescribed by law.”
This amendment is designed to strip the children of Wyoming of the fundamental right to an adequate and equitable education. If passed, K-12 education funding will become a discretionary decision by the Wyoming legislature. It also states that defining a quality education falls solely to legislators. Children, and those who serve them, could no longer use the court system to challenge their decisions.
However strong our desire to balance the budget, it does not justify the removal of a fundamental right. Would we limit free speech to balance the budget? Freedom of religion? We most certainly wouldn’t.
Stripping children of their fundamental right to an equitable education as a means to address a financial crisis is contrary to everything for which the Equality State stands for. SJ9 is irresponsible, unethical political maneuvering that will eliminate checks and balances and change education in Wyoming forever.
Yet we must address our shortfall. House Bill 0236, the Omnibus bill on education, calls for creating a Joint Select Committee on Education Funding, including an advisory committee composed of a cross-section of Wyoming people, to work together and identify solutions. Now this is a reasonable idea.
Will education continue to be a fundamental right of the children of Wyoming? For now, that’s in the hands of our legislators, and when needed, the Wyoming Supreme Court; as it should be. Should the legislature pass SJ9, it will soon be in the hands of voters.
Unfortunately, the group that has the most to lose doesn’t get a say. They entrust us to speak and act for them. It took the Wyoming Supreme Court and three important acts to ensure every child in Wyoming had access to their fundamental right to an adequate and equitable education. Should we fail to protect that right, it would be Wyoming tragedy, in one awful act.
Things are moving very quickly in the legislature now. Bills will be voted on over the next few weeks. If you and your family value public education in Wyoming, please contact your Represntative today, before it’s too late, and ask them to vote NO on SJ9.