A Wyoming Tragedy in One Act?

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.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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7 Responses to A Wyoming Tragedy in One Act?

  1. MItch Irrgang says:

    Thanks for this read, I’m curious, what is Mike Kinskey’s argument in defense of this bill? Is this a knee-jerk reaction based on funding deficits, or has this been a focus of some Senators for some time now?

    • Jay Harnack says:

      It’s hard to say for sure. It feels like a little of both. Unfortunately, it puts all Wyoming students in a position to lose a fundamental right to an adequate and equitable education. Given the importance this country and Wyoming have attached to fundamental rights, this should concern all Wyoming citizens.

  2. Merle Crandall says:

    Good morning Jay, Can anything be done at this point in the session? Is this going to have to involve a legal challenge going forward? If so is there anyone state organization to lead it?

    Thanks, Jo Crandall On Mon, Feb 6, 2017 at 1:38 PM Superintendent’s Blog wrote:

    > Jay Harnack posted: “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 d” >

    • Jay Harnack says:

      Jo – I think the best thing we can do is to contact our legislators and let them know that this legislation is highly detrimental to kids and ask them to vote NO.

  3. Dave Bell says:

    Jay, There are some conclusions you have drawn in your Blog which I will disagree with. I cannot imagine having any requirement be a part of the constitution of the state which REQUIRES something to be funded without regard to anything else in the budget or overall scheme. As the decision of the Supreme Court has unfolded over the past several budget cycles, the amount spent on K-12 has increased enormously.

    The facts as I know them:
    a. The k-12 shortfall is between $360-$400 million
    b. State government already has been cut by 10%–with $250 million cut this past summer after the 2016 legislature did its cutting. Another 10%–$30 million is looming with budget bills HB1 and SF1 aimed at general government, community colleges and the University of Wyoming.
    c. K-12 education has seen almost NO reduction by comparison to the rest of government. The “savings” in the House and Senate education bills range from 3% to 6%–$40–80 million.
    d. A 12% cut in K-12 would be about $170 million, what a one cent sales tax would bring in.
    e. On average a 12% cut would amount to about $2,000 less a year in per pupil spending leaving Wyoming about 30% higher than any neighboring states.
    f. For comparison purposes, Wyoming’s high school graduation rate is lower than every neighboring state except one.

    The shortfall’s in the states revenues are unfortunate. But, you have to understand, and I am sure you do, but don’t yet want to admit it, that the revenue picture for the foreseeable future is somewhat bleak. These types of shortfalls are the expected pattern, not the exception.

    To make the argument: SJR will “strip the children of Wyoming of the fundamental right to an adequate and equitable education” is just simply wrong and inflammatory.

    Given the picture the state faces–how would you balance the budget, which is also required by the constitution. I don’t think the language you have offered is helpful to the process nor is it reasonable.

    Dave Bell

    • Jay Harnack says:


      Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective. I believe discourse on this subject is a critical component to finding a solution. I would ask that you to consider the following in response:

      I did not state that I believed funding for education should occur without regard for anything else. I stated that it should be a priority. That’s what the Wyoming Supreme Court has stated and I agree. Everyone sets priorities in their life. As you might suspect, education is one of mine. Would you want someone serving as a superintendent who did not feel this way?

      I have no issue with our legislature working to address the shortfall, and I have no issue reducing expenditures when shortfalls occur. Our district is in the process of working through that process right now. Whatever funding the state provides, our staff will do our best to translate that into the best educational process possible.

      Unless we wish to eliminate the community nature of our school systems, education in Wyoming will always be more expensive because we lack economies of scale often found in other states. The Wyoming Speaker of the House Steve Harshman stated exactly this in his testimony before House Education Committee on January 30th. Can we become more efficient? Yes. Are we willing to close Bondurant Elementary and Labarge Elementary schools, and consolidate the Sublette County into one school district to achieve those efficiencies? I think perhaps that’s a good question to ask our community.

      Those who support this legislation have adopted the state’s graduation rate as good reasoning for its need. While it’s certainly an area in which our state can improve, I believe it fails to recognize the totality of evidence that supports Wyoming education has improved significantly. It also utilizes an average measure that I do not believe is characteristic of all Wyoming schools. I would invite you and any person interested in this topic to our schools to determine for themselves if SCSD 1 stakeholders get a good return on their investment. If that investment is reduced, the staff at SCSD 1 will do our absolute best to maximize that investment on behalf of our students.

      But ultimately, my issue with this legislation is not one of economics, although I do understand it is yours. This is about the principle of a fundamental right to an education for Wyoming students, and my responsibility as an advocate for children to protect that right. You believe that we should live within our means. Agreed. Let’s review the required basket of goods, the costs required provide the basket of goods, and the most efficient and effective ways to fund and deliver it. But I cannot, and will not, support this particular means to justify that end. It eliminates the checks and balances fundamental to a democracy, and above all else, removes protections from children.

      If any parent of a child in our district disagrees with a decision made in our district, they may appeal it to the Board of Trustees. If they disagree with a decision made by the Board of Trustees, they may avail themselves of the legal system. I support the rights of parents to such challenges? If you do not believe this legislation limits the rights of students and parents to such challenges, then I would respectfully state there are some conclusions you have drawn with which I will disagree.

      I appreciate the opportunity to exchange points of view.

      With great respect,


  4. Johann Nield says:

    Thank you Jay for your fight for All children in Wyoming. It’s easy to pick up the talking points that
    the legislators want the public to believe, high spending, low graduation rates, transportation cost,
    and the not getting own bang for our buck. If only the public talk to a teacher whom give 150 % of their time with 75% less reward than before. To educate a child is to ensure a future for all of us, no amount of money can be spared in relation to our children. Please public, listen to a Schoolboard Member that give of their time with no pay to oversee how the money is spent.

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