LARAMIE, Wyo. — Wyoming and Colorado are states that share a border, a passion for the Wild West and a love for the great outdoors.
But when it comes to school funding, they couldn’t be further apart.
Colorado teachers are walking out of classrooms and protesting for more school funding, better salaries and protection of their pensions.
Wyoming teachers, on the other hand, are some of the best paid in the country and not even considering a walkout.
Colorado spent $9,292 per pupil — below the national average — in 2015, according to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics. Wyoming spent $16,047, well above the national average.
Why Wyoming spends significantly more on schools than Colorado
One might think it’s hard to understand why Wyoming spends significantly more money on students than Colorado.
But the reason is simple. Wyoming has to because of a school funding lawsuit and a ruling by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
The court ruled Wyoming has a constitutional responsibility to fund all schools adequately and equitably.
“It’s the first budget item that we work,” state Sen. Chris Rothfuss told the FOX31 Problem Solvers. “The court in fact has said, ‘You will fully fund education. Anything else you do after that, it’s up to you. But you will fully fund education.’”
This year, Wyoming is spending about $1.6 billion on schools.
“I really do think you get what you pay for,” state Sen. Rothfuss said. “And if you want an exceptional education system, you have to fund it accordingly.”
But Wyoming’s exceptional school funding comes at a cost, especially now that there’s a downturn in the energy sector of the economy.
Schools have faced small cuts and most districts have prevented them from affecting the classroom.
Instead, Wyoming has drastically cut other budgets, including roads and transportation, social services and drug rehabilitation and prevention programs.
“That’s one of those very naive cuts that’s going to come back and haunt us,” Rothfuss said.
What more classroom spending delivers
Wyoming’s dedication to education is no more apparent than at Laramie High School.
The 300,000-square-foot state-of-the-art high school has been open for two years and is the pride of the city of about 32,000 residents.
The high school cost nearly $88 million. The state paid $63 million for the building and the basics, while the city’s voters agreed to a tax hike to fund another $25 million for extras, including a swimming and diving complex.
“It’s very comparable to many small colleges. It’s comparable to many big colleges, too. We’re fortunate to have it,” said the school’s physical education teacher and swimming coach, Tom Hudson.
He has won 13 state swimming titles in 26 years and, like many Wyoming teachers, could’ve left for a better job in a bigger city.
“I probably could’ve along the way,” Hudson said. “But I’ve chosen to stay here.”
One reason is money.
Because the state gives schools so much money, districts can offer some of the best teacher salaries in the country.
“School funding makes a difference,” Hudson said. “Money doesn’t solve all your problems, but it does make teachers happier, have a livable wage … makes you want to stay. And that’s important to people.”
On average, teachers in Wyoming make nearly $60,000 per year. That’s more than neighboring states, including Colorado, where teachers make an average of about $52,000.
This helps Wyoming recruit and retain some of the most talented teachers in the country.
“I don’t want to say luxury, but I guess I’ll say that,” said Albany County (Laramie) School District 1 Superintendent Jubal Yennie. “We’ve been fortunate that we can recruit very high quality teachers.”
Yennie believes that it’s because of those teachers that Wyoming schools have success in the classroom.
In the past month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores were released. They’re also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
Colorado’s scores were about average. Wyoming’s scores were much better.
They were far above average in all areas and led the nation in fourth grade math scores.
“Not just in the top, but leading the nation in fourth grade math and in the top in other areas,” Yennie said. “We must be doing something right.”
Wyoming students and parents agree and understand how fortunate they are.
“We have the best teachers and the best schools in Wyoming,” said Albany school board member and parent Tammy Schroeder.
Her daughter, Heidi Schroeder agrees.
She was asked if she thought she’d get the same quality of education without talented and experienced teachers.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “I think I do know what it feels like to not be challenged as much. You don’t put as much effort into things. But when teachers push you, they push your limits and you’re able to do better and challenge yourself.”
Beyond teachers, many of Wyoming’s schools have also been able to afford to keep para-professionals, nurses, librarians and more.
When Yennie was asked if education is something that follows the motto of, “You get what you pay for,” he said, “Yes, I believe so. I’ll help the folks out in Colorado if that’ll help. Yes, we definitely have the results in Wyoming.”