Wyoming Supreme Court Rejects State’s Bid To Overturn Key Ruling In School Funding Lawsuit

On September 19, the Wyoming Supreme Court denied a petition filed by the State of Wyoming to review a pivotal order issued by the trial court in Wyoming Education Association v. State, a major school funding case now pending in Laramie County district court. The state sought to upend decades of Wyoming precedent, arguing that the court should apply a lower standard of scrutiny to the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims. The case will now proceed to trial.

The Wyoming Education Association (WEA), a non-profit corporation representing 6,000 teachers across the state, filed the lawsuit in August 2022, claiming that the state was shirking its constitutional duty by failing to adequately update and fund the state school funding formula, as required by Wyoming Supreme Court precedent.

The plaintiffs claimed that by underfunding the formula, the state was violating both the educational adequacy and equal protection provisions of the Wyoming constitution. Those provisions guarantee educational opportunities to all resident children by, respectively, requiring the state to provide sufficient educational resources and distribute them equitably. The state moved to dismiss the case in September 2022, and in December 2022, the district court denied that motion. In May 2023, eight school districts joined the case.

The state then sought an order from the court that “strict scrutiny” would apply only to the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim. Strict scrutiny is a legal standard that requires a governmental actor, here the state, to prove that its harmful action or inaction is necessary to advance a compelling state interest.

The state argued that its action or inaction regarding the level of school funding provided should be presumed valid and could only be ruled unconstitutional if the plaintiffs proved that the state was failing to make a “good faith” effort to determine what a constitutionally adequate education is and to fund it.

The plaintiffs objected to the attempt to impose two different standards of review. The plaintiff-intervenor school districts noted that Wyoming precedent has long held that strict scrutiny applies to any interference with the fundamental right of education. The WEA observed that the state’s position—that strict scrutiny applies to how the state distributes funding but not to the level of funding it provides—could lead to a bizarre result: that is, as long as the state distributed inadequate funding equally, the court would have to presume that the state’s actions were constitutional.

In a July 31 order, the district court rejected the state’s arguments, ruling that strict scrutiny applies to both the adequacy and equal protection claims. The court cited the landmark school funding case, Campbell v. State, in which the Wyoming Supreme Court decided that “all aspects of the school finance system are subject to strict scrutiny and statutes establishing the school financing system are not entitled to any presumption of validity.” The justices came to that conclusion based on the fact that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution. 

The district court ruled that if the plaintiffs come forward with evidence of constitutional violations—namely the inadequacy of and disparities in educational opportunity for students across the state—the state will be required to show that its inaction was necessary to advance a compelling state interest. The Wyoming Supreme Court’s rebuff of the state’s request to review this decision means the state must now meet the strict scrutiny standard in order to justify its failure to update and fund the state school aid formula.

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