Wyoming is in the midst of financial crisis and it is having adverse effects on our K-12 education system. Over the past decade, Wyoming has lead the nation in the investment of our youth’s education; an investment that has paid its dividends with Wyoming’s public education system recently being ranked 7th in the nation. Even in this economic downturn, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to future generations and their college readiness.
When we invest in our children’s education, they continue onto college, they get well paying jobs post graduation, they’re more likely to stay in our State, and they help us develop and diversify our economic revenue base. Only through the investment of education can we ensure that the boom and bust cycle of our mineral dependent economy no longer determines the State’s successes and failures.
There are tough times ahead friends, I am not going to lie to you about that. We have some difficult choices to make over the coming weeks here at the Legislature, and ultimately, you the people need to be a part of those decisions as well. As your elected officials the state legislators and Senators have to figure out how the State can continue the progress made in recent years with our education system while also facing the economic reality we find ourselves in.
Right now, the Legislature is discussing multiple measures in order to balance our projected $400 million shortfall to our K-12 education system this coming fiscal year. Many of these measures only propose simple budget cut solutions and will, in the long run, cause more harm than good. Decreasing teacher salaries, increasing class sizes, and offering few alternative and special education choices to our students is not going to fix our funding problem.
In any economic downturn, it is a natural train of thought to believe budget cuts alone will be the most effective means to balance our budget. But before we come to this often sought after conclusion, we have to ask ourselves two questions:
What is the cause of our economic and fiscal crisis?
And, what are the consequences of this type of austerity?
When answering the first of these questions, it is important to understand that rather than solely having a spending problem, there is a revenue problem as well. Our tax revenue stream in Wyoming is dependent on an industry that is well known for it’s boom and bust cycles. These boom and bust cycles create economic uncertainty in our State and ultimately lead us into situations where we have to measure public well being against a balanced budget.
There is no easy solution to this zero sum game but we have to be open to looking at other revenue sources and increasing taxes, as minimally as possible, while also seeking budget cuts where appropriate. This approach would allow Wyoming to look at potential duplications and inefficiencies within budgets but not require us to make blind cuts to vital programs and services in order to meet a balanced budget.
If we adopt a dramatic austerity approach to all of our budget shortfalls, especially the one we find ourself in currently with our K-12 education system, we are going to cause detrimental effects to our children and their future families. 85% of current State expenses towards K-12 education is dedicated to personnel. Teachers, staff, and administrators across all of our school districts provide necessary services to the students of Wyoming and already have so much on their plates. If we continue to propose blind cuts to our education system, these are the people who will have to bare the burden of our decisions.
Although, the type of extreme austerity measures being proposed, what would be the impact on our teachers? Many would be laid off, and the ones who remain on contract will then be tasked with taking on more responsibilities and increasing their workload. Those who don’t seek employment in a State with more educational support will be overworked, decreasing our ability to provide the adequate education our children need to succeed in the world. If our teachers don’t have the resources and time to effectively educate our children, then who ultimately fails? Our children fail, that’s who. When are students aren’t able to learn in a conducive environment, many are not going to be career or college ready and will not seek to continue onto higher educational opportunities. This whole scenario will lead to the even further economic and fiscal failure of our State.
It’s quite simple, investing in education will allow children to go to college and will then provide the people of Wyoming with the economic diversification that so many in the legislator talk so about. We need to be smart and pragmatic with our economic reality. Blind cuts won’t do the trick, but neither will massive tax increases. Both tools must be used and they should be used in a productive manner. Collectively to truly make an impact on our K-12 education system and ultimately continue to provide for the future of our children and our State.