CHEYENNE – Leaders of the Wyoming Legislature say improved state oversight of public schools should stand as the biggest achievement of the session that’s now entering its final week.

Concern over student graduation rates and test scores spurred lawmakers to launch several bills this session to improve teacher and student performance.

“We came into the session defining the goal of education improvement overall,” House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington, said Friday. “That’s something that we’ve been talking about for at least two years now. Once we got the funding in place, once we got teacher salaries up to where they needed to be, this was the logical next step, which was to look at educational improvement.”

Senate President Jim Anderson, R-Glenrock, said Friday he believes education bills coming out of the legislative session that started in early January will allow Wyoming to demand more accountability from students, teachers and administrators. The state now spends nearly $1.5 billion annually on its schools.

Session centerpiece

“Education, I think, will be one of the centerpieces of the session,” Anderson said.

“We’re going to try to overcome what we feel were some of the drastic high school dropout rates, and sub-par graduation rates,” said Anderson, himself a retired teacher. “We want to get our third-grade reading scores up.

“It’s all going to be based on improvement of teacher-student performance,” Anderson said. “If our economy continues in any fashion like it has, we should have continued resources necessary to address the problems.”

The session’s main education accountability bill, Senate File 70, is still in play. The House amended the bill on its final reading on Friday, essentially delaying some provisions designed to hold underperforming schools accountable for low student scores. While some in the Senate may object to the changes, time is short to reach a compromise before Thursday’s scheduled adjournment.

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Supplemental bill

In addition to its work on education, the Legislature this session approved a $250-million supplemental budget bill. That will be in addition to the established, two-year, $2.9 billion budget the Legislature approved last year to carry the state through mid-2012. Federal funding for highways and some other projects is in addition to that.

Aside from the $250 million in new spending, the Legislature agreed to hold more than $1 billion in revenues the state is projected to receive by mid-2012 in available reserves that lawmakers could tap if the economy takes a nose-dive.

“Wyoming finds itself in a very good position in comparison to what we see across the country,” Anderson said. “We continue to try to build not only our permanent mineral trust, but also our retrievable reserves, to be used in the event that we need them. We appear to have about $1 billion that would be in what we call rainy-day accounts.”

Debate over spending was limited this session as both the House and the Senate agreed on the main points of additional spending package: $45 million in new operational funds to local governments and $15 million to start a fund to address problem landfills around the state.

The House voted down a bill that would have increased the tax on electricity generated from wind farms in the state while cutting the sales tax on generators and other equipment.

Buchanan said he doesn’t know that there’s anything wrong, from a policy standpoint, with the state’s current wind tax structure.

However, Buchanan said he senses Wyoming could still find “a tax structure that would appeal to industry, and appeal to landowners and that would appeal to local governments such that we could really put the issue to rest. Because I feel like it’s still out there.”

The Legislature also acted on several bills that Buchanan said are intended to restore individual rights. For example, a bill that would allow citizens to carry concealed handguns without a permit has passed both houses and awaits action by Gov. Matt Mead this week.

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