Wyoming lawmakers vote to give public education funding to families

Wyoming could soon become the 16th state* placing public education funding in the hands of parents.

The Wyoming Legislature passed HB 116, which now awaits Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature. The measure would create a new education savings account program.

The bill has several features that stand out compared to similar programs elsewhere in the country.

Phased funding: Scholarships would be available to nearly every state resident eligible to enroll their child in a public school, but the funding would phase out for families with higher household incomes.

Families earning up to 150% of the federal poverty level could receive scholarships worth up to $6,000, and the amounts would taper gradually for families with higher income levels. Families earning up to 500% of the federal poverty level would qualify for $600 scholarships.

Preschool: The legislation would set aside 20 percent of scholarship funding for Pre-K students, a population often overlooked by education choice scholarship programs.

Broad potential uses: The legislation outlines 16 allowable uses of funds, which range from private school tuition, public school services, tutoring and textbooks to technology, school transportation, and afterschool or summer learning programs. This would place Wyoming’s ESA program on the broader end of the spectrum, alongside the likes of Arizona and Utah, when it comes to the range of options available to scholarship families.

Elastic clause: Like some other states, including Arkansas and Utah, Wyoming’s legislation includes a mechanism for state officials to approve uses of scholarship funds that meet the spirit of the law but might not fit the letter. In addition to specifically authorized expenses, it would allow parents to use their accounts for “[a]ny other educational expense approved by the state superintendent.”

Minimum instruction: Wyoming’s ESA would give parents broad authority to shape their children’s learning experiences, and the legislation includes several clauses affirming the autonomy of schools and parents. At the same time, it would require participating parents to ensure their children receive instruction in core academic subjects, including, “at minimum, reading, writing, mathematics, civics, including studies of the United States constitution and the constitution of the state of Wyoming, history, literature and science.”

State of innovation: Gordon has championed an ambitious overhaul of Wyoming’s public education system, with a small number of pilot school districts leading the charge. Key features include a shift to flexible mastery-based learning, increased work-based learning opportunities, and systems to support more learning outside the classroom. These changes could complement the ESA program.

*For wonks keeping score at home: This count includes 14 states, most recently Alabama, that offer education savings accounts, plus Oklahoma, which offers an ESA-like individual tax credit.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.