21 May Panel Examining School Finances (WY)

May 21, 2010

By: Jackie Borchardt
Source: Billings Gazette

Wyoming has enough money to give schools the resources necessary to succeed, consultant Larry Picus told legislators charged with evaluating the state’s school funding formula.

The state distributes about $1.3 billion to 48 school districts in “block grants” based on student population. The funding formula set in 2005 allocates money for teachers, technology, student support and other areas, but districts can spend the money however they want.

The Legislature evaluates or “recalibrates” the model every five years. A committee of state senators and representatives — many with ties to education — has begun recalibration studies and will make recommendations to the Legislature next year.

Although the formula was recommended by research by Picus’ consulting firm, he told the committee in Casper on Thursday that the funding model belongs to Wyoming. Legislators shouldn’t just set and adjust the model, but also enforce it. The model was based on research and best practices, and Picus challenged critics to propose an alternative.

If districts followed the model, every student would have performed well on the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming students, or PAWS, Picus said. He said schools that follow the model should be successful.

Committee co-chairman Rep. Del McOmie, R-Lander, hoped school districts would have more closely adapted to the model after studies two years ago. He was disappointed to learn classroom size, tutors and instructional coaches weren’t being applied in all instances.

“Nationwide (instructional coaches) have far and away, head and shoulders above any intervention that’s done to raise student achievement,” McOmie said.

Picus recommended the state fund at previously recommended levels, even though districts have used resources against recommendations. For example, elementary schools employed 468 fewer teachers and 119 fewer tutors than funded in the model yet employed 322 more aides than recommended.

Districts also employed 145 more professional and 225 m ore clerical positions at the central office level than funded in the model.

“This state funds central administration higher than any other state I’m aware of,” Picus said.

Picus also recommended the state not fund programs added at various times since 2005: an adjustment for very small school districts and grants for school food service programs.

Less money could be allocated for vocational courses and technology because costs for those areas have decreased, he said.

At future meetings, the committee will review school finance and student performance data about individual districts as well as analysis about teacher and employee pay and benefits. School districts have been asked to provide more information about teachers, such as college GPA and Praxis teaching test scores.

The results will be used to determine if the rapid increase in salaries has attracted more high-quality teachers to Wyoming, said Richard Seder of the Legislative Service Office. Increased data collection received some push-back from districts, but legislators supported gathering the information.

“We have to figure out if young people, qualified people, want to teach in Wyoming,” said Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie.

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