Career-technical paths, accountability, funding are the focus in ed legislation

CHEYENNE — As expected by many, education has been a big topic in the Wyoming Legislature’s 2019 general session.

Proposed bills have ranged from school security to workforce development to changes to the Hathaway scholarship. Some are new this session, and some are ghosts from years past, but most of the overarching themes have tended to focus on accountability, funding, and career and technical education.

Midway through this year’s session, here’s a roundup of some of the bills education leaders are focusing on for the remainder of the session.

Education funding, and where it comes from, is always a contentious subject, but Wyoming Education Association President Kathy Vetter said this was the first session with so many bills looking for a more stable revenue source.

“This is probably the first year that they’ve looked at as many different sources as they have,” she said.

Vetter said many of those bills have been unsuccessful, but not all of them. House Bill 220, which would apply a 7 percent tax on chain retailers like McDonald’s and Walmart and put that revenue toward education, passed the House and now awaits Senate action.

Vetter said because it’s the first year these sorts of bills have been proposed, she doesn’t expect they’ll make it through right away.

“It’s a process; you’ve got to put the idea out there, and it might not happen this year, might not happen next year, but they are starting to talk, and that’s step one,” she said.

Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said it would be important to keep an eye on the external cost adjustment, which the House and Senate are currently wrestling over.

The external cost adjustment updates education funding every few years to account for inflation, and Farmer said it’s the foundation that allows stakeholders to focus on everything else.

The fate of that external cost estimate is still uncertain as the budget bills move through both chambers.

Currently, the state’s teacher accountability model aligns with ideals set by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which tie teacher accountability with student standardized test scores.

But since the federal government implemented the Every Student Succeeds Act, which, in many ways, reverts back to pre-NCLB policy, some educators and administrators have argued Wyoming should do the same with state-level teacher accountability.

A bill currently sitting in the Senate Education Committee, House Bill 22, would do just that, and allow each district to implement its own accountability model.

Ken Decaria, director of government relations for the Wyoming School Boards Association, said this change was necessary to keep Wyoming teacher accountability in line with federal statute.

“We’re going to be jumping through hoops that don’t even exist anymore,” he said.

That bill saw a tough debate Friday as Senate Education Committee members grappled with exactly what the bill did or did not allow for.

Committee member Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, said she felt the bill changed too much.

“There’s a lot of pieces to this that are sweeping that I’m uneasy about,” she said. “I think this bill does a lot more than we realized.”

Amid the standard education concerns, a new topic has emerged: a push for career and technical education and workforce development legislation.

Pre-session efforts by Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who came into office with the goal of expanding CTE in the state, along with momentum from former Gov. Matt Mead’s ENDOW program have created an impetus for legislative action on career and technical education in the state.

House Speaker Rep. Steve Harsh-man, R-Casper, has signed onto a number of these bills. Some legislators have said this topic seemed to come out of nowhere, but Harshman disagreed.

“I think things start gathering momentum,” Harshman said.

A few of those bills still being considered touch both K-12 and higher education.

Senate File 43 opens the Hathaway scholarship criteria to students on a career-technical pathway, and Senate File 121 creates grant programs for technical education. Both bills made it through the Senate, and SF 43 will be heard by the House Education Committee on Monday.

Balow said these bills will help students who are interested in going into technical fields pursue that interest early on.

On the higher education side, a number of bills to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees have also been introduced.

Senate File 111 and House Bill 263 have both made it out of committee, and propose divergent, but similar approaches to increase access to career and technical education post-high school.

Vetter said all of these bills seek to bridge the skills gap in the state.

“They’re really looking at how we can make sure that our young people can be prepared to walk right into a high-paying job right here in Wyoming,” she said.

Balow said this legislation is a step in the right direction, but meeting the state’s career-readiness and technical education goals was going to take public and private collaboration.

“As with all things, there’s no silver bullet,” she said.

Friday was the last day for bills to be voted out of committee, and Monday will be the last day for bills to be first voted on in their house of origin. Many of these bills will likely see a number of proposed amendments as they work their way through floor readings.