In 2022, Wyoming fourth-graders scored the best in the nation in mathematics on the “National Assessment of Education Progress” (NAEP) tests.
Not fourth-graders from Massachusetts. Not fourth-graders from California or Washington or New York.
Wyoming students were the best in America.
And that’s not all. The 2022 NAEP tests, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Education, found that Wyoming fourth graders were second in the nation in reading (behind Massachusetts).
Our eighth-graders performed well, too. They scored better than 44 other states in math and bested 35 others in reading. The most recent year NAEP tests took place for the subject of science, 2015, our fourth and eighth graders both scored in the top 10 nationwide.
This is not out of the ordinary. Wyoming students tend to achieve among the highest in the United States every time the “Nation’s Report Card” is administered. Not bad for a state known for ranching, hunting, and roughnecks.
Of course, educating students across Wyoming’s sweeping rural landscapes is not as cheap as cramming thousands of students into dense city schools.
But the Equality State has historically made it a point to invest in K-12 education. In fact, our constitution requires it. Wyoming is typically around 10th in the nation for per-pupil spending.
Clearly, given our students’ outstanding performance, the investment pays off.
“If we don’t provide a world-class education system, Wyoming will be challenged to stay competitive in a changing world and retain the families that make up both the fabric of our communities and the heart of our workforce.”Gov. Mark Gordon
In recent years, however, as tax revenues from the fossil fuel industries have declined, the Wyoming Legislature has repeatedly cut funding from our public schools.
In 2022, even among record inflation, state lawmakers refused to provide school districts funding to support cost-of-living raises for teachers. This prompted a lawsuit from the Wyoming Education Association and multiple school districts. They seek to force the Legislature and Governor Mark Gordon to uphold their constitutional duties to fund schools.
This year, as mineral revenues have rebounded, Gov. Gordon has asked the Legislature to include an additional $70 million in the budget to cover inflation for teacher salaries.
“Wyoming’s future is intertwined with education,” Gordon said when he released his November budget. “If we don’t provide a world-class education system, we will be challenged to stay competitive in a changing world and retain the families that make up both the fabric of our communities and the heart of our workforce.”
It remains to be seen whether the Legislature, which has become increasingly under control of the far-right “Freedom Caucus,” will support the governor’s recommendations. The Freedom Caucus opposes public schools, and instead favors private, charter, and religious institutions to educate our children.
The students of Wyoming’s public schools are clearly upholding their end of the deal with their excellent performance. The 2023 legislative session will show us whether lawmakers are intent to support their good work with the funding required to succeed.
Teachers are critical to quality education
Wyoming’s top-of-the-nation performance is only possible with good teachers. No single factor affects education more than teacher quality.
Salaries and benefits typically amount to around 80 percent of each Wyoming school district’s budget. So, when the Legislature cuts school funding, they’re mostly cutting funding to pay teachers.
Recent cuts to Wyoming school funding have compounded problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, stress and burnout have prompted teachers to leave the profession. The same is true in Wyoming.
If the Legislature refuses to at least adjust teacher pay to keep up with inflation, Wyoming schools will continue to bleed talent and experience.
The governor recently launched a task force to attempt to attract and retain quality teachers—a response to so many leaving our state.
Of course, the situation is complex, but it’s simply true that Wyoming schools will have a hard time employing excellent educators if teacher pay is too low. That’s basic economics.
If the Legislature refuses during the 2023 session to at least provide teachers a pay adjustment to keep up with inflation, Wyoming schools will continue to bleed talent and experience.
As a result, we could be kissing goodbye those top-in-the-nation performances from our students, and everything else that comes from having a high-performing education system.
Politicians focus on distractions
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on how to support teachers and students, Wyoming lawmakers are more interested in arguing about “hot button” national issues like Critical Race Theory, transgender athletes, and whether or not libraries are foisting pornography on students.
“It’s important to make sure our educators feel supported, not attacked, and that their professionalism is respected by the Legislature.”Tate Mullen, WEA govt policy coordinator
According to Tate Mullen, the Wyoming Education Association’s government policy coordinator, these conversations are not only not helpful for teachers and schools—they can make the problems of teacher burnout worse.
“It’s important to make sure our educators feel supported, not attacked, and that their professionalism is respected by the Legislature,” Mullen said.
Sadly, one of the politicians most hostile to public schools and most eager to gin up hysteria over hot button national issues was Brian Schroeder, who until last month was the Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Schroeder was appointed when former state superintendent Jillian Balow left Wyoming to head up Virginia’s public education department. He lost the 2022 primary election to Megan Degenfelder, who assumed office this month.
During his short tenure, Schroeder, who runs a private Christian school in Cody, testified in legislative committees about the perils of Critical Race Theory, and he helped organize a rally against the “sexualization” of children that focused on banning LGBTQ-themed books from schools.
He certainly was not interested in promoting the success of our students. When the 2022 NAEP scores were released, showing Wyoming at the top of the nation, the Wyoming Department of Education issued a press release describing how our state-level scores had dropped from previous years by 2 percent.
Essentially every state’s students experienced struggles during the past few years, being disrupted by the pandemic. So the drop was not, in effect, news.
Why was Schroeder so keen to emphasize the decrease in test scores while burying the fact that Wyoming fourth graders were literally the best in the nation at math and second best at reading?
It’s because he and other Freedom Caucus politicians want to push the narrative that Wyoming public schools are failing—they aren’t worth the investment, and we should replace them with private options and charters.
But make no mistake: Wyoming K-12 education is excellent. Our public school system is one of the institutions all of us should be most proud of. It is critical to the future of our state, and we cannot let politicians defund or otherwise dismantle it.