Each year, we survey the states to see where we can expect charter school legislation to be introduced and if it will be helpful or harmful to charter schools and students in the state. Most years it's easy to predict which states will be active and what types of legislation will be introduced, but we still conduct this due diligence on every state—even if we think it's unlikely charter schools will come up. For example: Wyoming.
Wyoming first passed its charter school law in 1995. It is ranked near the bottom on the National Alliance’s State Rankings Report (#41 out of 44). In 26 years, no meaningful improvements have been made to the law. That is why Wyoming has five charter schools serving fewer than 600 students.
At the time we were conducting our due diligence in Wyoming, we received a call that changed everything. Former Wyoming House Speaker Russ Donley had reached out to a high-quality national network of charter schools hoping to interest them in opening schools in the state. They informed him that they could not open in Wyoming because of its weak law and directed him to us.
How a charter school bill became law in Wyoming
In the months that followed, we worked with Speaker Donley to recommend changes to dramatically improve the law. These suggested changes were turned into a bill draft and through a series of meetings, Donley convinced key senators to support that bill draft. By the start of session, a sponsor agreed to shepherd the bill through the process and enough Senate Education Committee members were supportive. Unbelievably, the bill passed the Senate in the first week of session.
However, the deck was stacked against the bill in the House. Not only was the current Speaker not supportive, neither were the powerful House Appropriations Committee Chair or the House Majority Leader. The bill came to the House floor as a shell of what passed the Senate. The watered-down bill passed the House where the Senate disagreed with the changes, and the bill was sent to a conference committee to negotiate.
The coalition, now expanded from just Speaker Donley and the National Alliance to include statewide organizations and the state superintendent of education, worked to get support for the Senate version of the bill in the conference committee. That forced the House conferees, initially unmovable, to restore much of the strong Senate language. The bill passed on the final night of session—but there was one more hurdle. The Governor almost vetoed the bill. Reluctantly, he allowed the bill to pass into law without his signature.
Major improvements in Wyoming's new charter school bill
This law makes huge strides towards providing more educational opportunities for Wyoming's public school students by promoting growth while increasing accountability and allowing charter schools' autonomy to innovate and meet the needs of the families in their communities.
- Local groups and high performing networks now have multiple pathways to become authorized charter schools.
- The charter application and contract must include specific, rigorous requirements to ensure high-quality applicants and schools. Further, schools will be held accountable for performance-based academic results.
- If needed, the state board of education can waive public charter schools from state statutory requirements or rules put into effect by the state board.
Unfortunately, in addition to many of the positive changes, the new law has an initial cap on the number of new charter schools that can be approved by the state (three) until the state superintendent of education reports on the effectiveness of charter schools to the Legislature and the Legislature votes to remove the cap. We anticipate that the state's strong law will ensure three high-quality charter schools will open in Wyoming and the state superintendent will be able to share that positive report.
What's next for Wyoming's charter school movement?
It is now up to Wyoming’s charter school supporters, with the assistance of the National Alliance, to educate the public and potential charter school founders to open high quality public charter schools in the state so we can show the need and demand to lift the cap. With the strong political winds against it, the bill faced a serious uphill battle to passage. However, through effective advocacy, Wyoming families and educators will soon have access to more quality public schooling opportunities.
Russ Simnick is the senior director of state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.