K-12 public schools in Wyoming enroll about 87,000 students, with 31% in poverty, 3% learning English, 17% minorities, and annual expenditures of close to $1.2 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
Beginning in 1995, a series of decisions by the Wyoming Supreme Court in Campbell v. State led to extensive legislative reform of the state’s school funding system. In 2008, the court ordered additional funding system adjustments to the legislature, and closed the case.
In 2008, the Wyoming Supreme Court closed the long-running Campbell case, ordering that the legislature change the funding system provisions on teacher salary minimums and funding for adequate school facilities. The court also stated that though quality pre-K was an excellent recommendation, the legislature was not required to offer it.
In 1980, in Washakie County Sch. Dist. v. Herschler, an equity case, the Wyoming Supreme Court held that the state’s system of financing public education, which was based principally on local property taxes and resulted in low-property-wealth school districts consistently receiving less revenue per student than higher-property-wealth ones, failed to afford equal protection in violation of the state constitution.
In 1995, in Campbell County Sch. Dist. v. State (Campbell I), another equity case, the Wyoming Supreme Court held that the state school funding system, which resulted in funding disparities among local districts, failed to satisfy the state’s obligation under the education clause of the state constitution to provide equal educational opportunity.
The legislature responded to this decision by working carefully to create a constitutional education finance system despite revenue shortfalls.
Nonetheless, in 2001, in Campbell II, the Wyoming Supreme Court "reluctantly" held that, "while great effort has been made by many and some improvement has been achieved, the constitutional mandate for a fair, complete, and equal education ‘appropriate for the times’ in Wyoming has not been fully met." The court ruled that the methodology of the school funding legislation adopted in response to Campbell I was acceptable, but that the legislation must be modified in several respects, especially in the area of capital funding, in order to provide a constitutionally adequate education. The case was remanded for further proceedings and the district court retained jurisdiction.
In 2004, plaintiffs filed a motion, arguing that the state had not fully remedied the constitutional deficiencies in the school funding system that were identified in Campbell II for either operations or construction funding. As part of their request for relief, plaintiffs alleged that the state must fund a high quality pre-K program.
In 2006, the trial court issued an order declaring some elements of the school funding system unconstitutional, including those related to school facilities and seniority pay adjustments for teachers. The court nevertheless found that the state had complied with the mandate of Campbell II in most respects, including at-risk program aid. Plaintiffs appealed, and, in Campbell IV in 2008, the Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed the trial court in part, ordered certain remaining funding system adjustments to the legislature, and closed the case.
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"The right of the citizens to opportunities for education should have practical recognition. The legislature shall suitably encourage means and agencies calculated to advance the sciences and liberal arts." Wyo. Const. art. 1, § 23.
"The legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction, embracing free elementary schools of every needed kind and grade, a university with such technical and professional departments as the public good may require and the means of the state allow, and such other institutions as may be necessary." Wyo. Const. art. 7, § 1.
In Washakie County Sch. Dist. v. Herschler, the Wyoming Supreme court declared that public education is a fundamental right, stating: "We have already made clear our view and will amplify on it, that the matter of education involves a fundamental interest of great public importance." The court noted the significance of the right to education and its importance to the founders of the state. Since education is a fundamental right, the court said, it should be provided on an equal basis and subject to strict scrutiny. Regarding financing, the court stated that "until equality of financing is achieved, there is no practicable method of achieving equality of quality." 606 P.2d 310, 334-336, 315 (1980).
In Campbell County Sch. Dist. v. State (Campbell I), the Wyoming Supreme Court interpreted the Education Article further and more fully articulated what an education in the state should look like:
"…a quality education will include:
- Small schools, small class size, low student/teacher ratios, textbooks, low student/personal computer ratios.
- Integrated, substantially uniform substantive curriculum decided by the legislature through the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education with input from local school boards.
- Ample, appropriate provision for at-risk students, special problem students, talented students.
- Setting of meaningful standards for course content and knowledge attainment intended to achieve the legislative goal of equipping all students for entry to the University of Wyoming and Wyoming Community Colleges or which will achieve the other purposes of education.
- Timely and meaningful assessment of all students’ progress in core curriculum and core skills regardless of whether those students intend to pursue college or vocational training." 907 P.2d 1238, 1279 (Wyo. 1995).
In Campbell IV the Wyoming Supreme Court made clear again that "the Wyoming constitution establishes education as a fundamental right." 181 P.3d 43, 49 (2008). Further, it confirmed that, "Art. 1, § 34, which guarantees equal protection under the law, prohibits wealth-based disparities in education funding." (citing Campbell I and Campbell II). "However," the court also noted that "exact or absolute equality is not required." The court further explained that "differences may exist in funding between school districts if those differences result from differences in the cost of providing education." 181 P.3d 43, 49.,
In Campbell County Sch. Dist. v. State (Campbell IV), plaintiff school districts argued that in order to meet its constitutional duty to provide a "fair, complete and equal education appropriate for the times[,]" the state must offer high quality preschool. The trial court, in 2005, granted the state’s motion for summary judgment on the preschool claim. The court’s ruling was based on a narrow reading of one section of the Wyoming Constitution, which requires the legislature to make "further provision" for the education of all children between the ages of 6 and 21. The court found this provision limited public education to children ages 6 and over and therefore precluded it from directing the state to fund a preschool program.
Plaintiffs appealed the preschool ruling with their partial appeal of the trial court’s 2006 order. Plaintiff Laramie County School District No. 1’s appellate brief focused on the state’s constitutional obligation to fund a high quality prekindergarten program as part of a "fair, complete, and equal education appropriate for the times." The brief also argued that the trial court failed to consider another section of the Wyoming Constitution that requires the legislature to "provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction … embracing free elementary schools of every needed kind and grade … and such other institutions as may be necessary." 181 P.3d 43 (Wyo. 2008); Wyo. Const. art. 7, § 1.
The Wyoming PTA and Northern Arapaho Tribe filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiffs’ prekindergarten claim.
In 2008, the Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed the trial court’s ruling and closed the case. The court explained that the state constitution specifically says that the state’s education obligation begins at age 6, and so they could not order the state to offer preschool despite the evidence of its importance for children, especially those that are low-income or at-risk.
Education Law Center prepared an amicus brief in Campbell County Sch. Dist. v. State on behalf of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Wyoming Parent Teacher Association arguing that pre-K programs for low-income children are a necessary component of a constitutionally adequate system of education.
Wyoming does not fund a state pre-K program. School districts are allowed to offer part-time pre-K programs, either in-district or by contracting with private pre-K providers, but such programs are locally funded.