Why is getting support for public preschool in Wyoming like pulling teeth?

One big reason Wyoming’s K-12 public school system is among the nation’s best is that every child—no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money their parents earn—has access to a free and equitable public education.

Our state constitution demands it, unlike those of many states.

Elsewhere in the United States, kids in wealthy areas tend to go to good schools while kids in poor areas go to schools that struggle. 

Not in Wyoming. 

Here, all students have a shot at a quality education—whether you’re the child of a finance broker in Jackson or a truck driver in Wamsutter—and our K-12 school system delivers.

Pre-K education is not a sexy issue that politicians believe will get them re-elected.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for pre-K education in Wyoming

We’re one of the few states that doesn’t have a free statewide preschool program, despite decades of research that shows that early childhood education improves academic success and even leads to better paying jobs down the line. 

In a state with such a successful public school system, and where public schools are the foundation for many communities, why is generating support for public pre-K in Wyoming like pulling teeth?

The short answer is that, regardless of its many real-life benefits, pre-K education is not a sexy issue that politicians believe will get them re-elected. That’s why it’s often buried beneath hot-button topics that lawmakers parrot from national news or push via legislation copied from Florida.

The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee meeting last week is an example of this fact.

While the Legislature’s Management Council—to its credit—instructed the JEC to look at ways to improve pre-K education during the 2023 interim session, the committee spent most of its time last week debating a “Don’t Say Gay” bill (copied from Florida) and hearing testimony about “parental rights” from the Moms for Liberty.

In fact, one of the only proposals to increase support for pre-K education at the meeting came in the form of a so-called “education savings account” bill that would actually divert public money to private and religious schools, instead of working toward a statewide public preschool system.

Until Wyoming residents can convince politicians that issues like public preschool that deliver real benefits to real people are worth considering, they will be an afterthought as debates rage over banning library books, policing transgender people, and other topics of greater hype but far less consequence to state residents.

Education for wealthy, urban Wyoming residents

Whether a Wyoming child has access to preschool today largely depends on where they live and how much money their family makes. 

Nate Breen

Simply put, unless a family qualifies for a low-income or special education program, they must pay private preschool tuition, which can be more than most working families can afford. Meanwhile, many smaller towns and rural areas do not have enough preschool options to serve their communities.

Nate Breen, a longtime educator and former Wyoming State Board of Education member, says the state’s current program is the opposite of what we need: a universal, voluntary preschool system that is open to anyone.

“Where a child lives, where her neighborhood is, what her zip code is, should never, ever be an indicator of education success,” Breen told Better Wyoming.

“The data is very clear,” Breen added, “kids who have gone through a quality early childhood education program—compared to those who have not—enter kindergarten roughly three years ahead of them. That gap is rarely made up.”

People in Wyoming’s rural communities and young middle-class families often face great difficulty enrolling their kids in preschool. 

Public preschools exist in the state, but they’re reserved for low-income children and kids with disabilities, and funded only by federal dollars. Home-schooling is a choice for some, but it takes parents out of the workforce and isn’t economically feasible for many families.

Most working Wyoming families are faced with two difficult options: enroll in costly private schools, or simply skip what could prove to be a critical developmental step for their child. 

Young disabled children don’t vote

Last week, at the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee meeting, Speaker of the House Albert Sommers brought forth a “compromise” bill that sought to do two things: appease his colleagues in the so-called “Freedom Caucus” who want to dismantle public education by funneling state money to private and religious schools; and provide a bit of funding for families to use for preschool via $3,000 “vouchers” they can use for private preschool tuition.

While the latter is well-intended, implementing a “voucher” system in Wyoming would be disastrous. In other states, voucher systems have proven wildly more expensive than advertised, and they leave out rural and special education students who can’t take advantage of them

“If we don’t fix the archaic funding formula, I’m afraid we’re going to see centers shut down across the state. Then what will we do for early childhood intervention?”

They do all this while diverting funds away from public schools.

Of course, diverting funds from public schools is the goal of some big-money lobbying groups like Koch Brothers-funded Americans For Prosperity, which finances legislators’ campaigns and whose Wyoming director, Tyler Lindholm, was at the meeting to support school vouchers.

The committee decided to push back discussion of the “voucher” (or “education savings account”) bill to its next meeting, on Nov. 14 – 15 in Cheyenne. 

Meanwhile, the committee also heard from Child Development Centers (CDCs) around Wyoming that serve special education kids who are 5 years old and younger under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

For years, many of these centers in Wyoming have been on the verge of financial collapse due to underfunding by the Legislature. They receive roughly half the per-student funding that normal K-12 schools get in Wyoming, which means they cannot offer several of the services required by federal law. 

In turn, the publicly funded centers must hand off students to private preschools that can provide the services, and they must pay the private tuition out of their own limited accounts.

This funding model, said Natrona County center director Alisha Rone, “is crippling us. If we don’t fix the archaic funding formula, I’m afraid we’re going to see CDCs shut down across the state. Then what will we do for early childhood intervention?”

The committee hemmed and hawed about what to do, then settled on encouraging Governor Mark Gordon to include more funding for CDCs in the state’s 2024 budget. If he does not, the committee agreed, they would revisit the subject and sponsor its own funding bill.

The contrast between the urgency communicated by the centers’ directors—whose facilities are on the verge of shutting down, with no backups—and the lackadaisical response of the committee underscored Wyoming’s bare-minimum approach to early childhood education.

And why should they care, really? The Childhood Development Centers didn’t have any big-money lobbyists like Americans for Prosperity supporting them. 

Heck, young children with disabilities don’t even vote.

The benefits of preschool are clear, but middle-class and rural Wyoming families face huge hurdles enrolling their kids. Most states have public preschool, but not Wyoming—and trying to encourage lawmakers who are busy arguing over hot-button national issues to do something about it is an exercise in frustration and disappointment.