Wyoming Legislature creates Education Savings Account to support students outside the public school system

    The Wyoming Legislature passed a bill this year providing education funding for students outside of the public school system.

    House Bill 166 – now House Enrolled Act 53 – creates an Education Savings Account (ESA) that the State Superintendent of Public Instruction can use to cover “qualifying education expenses” for students enrolled in the ESA program.

    The money – up to $6,000 per student – can only go to families whose household income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, based on a recent line-item veto by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.


    The veto eliminated the portions of the bill that allowed ESA money to go to families with household incomes at or below up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level.

    Gordon said those provisions raised “substantial questions about whether the program correctly aligns with” the Wyoming Constitution, which says the state can’t “loan or give its credit or make donations to or in aid of any individual, association or corporation, except for necessary support of the poor.”

    Religious instruction

    The Wyoming Constitution also prohibits the use of public school funds “to support or assist any private school, or any school, academy, seminary, college or other institution of learning controlled by any church or sectarian organization or religious denomination,” Gordon noted, and HB 166 “fails to restrict (ESA education) providers solely to non-denomination or non-religious entities” – but he is “prepared to risk” the potential to “violate” that provision of the Constitution because he believes that “recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings in these matters could augur persuasively to our benefit.”

    Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, asked about the potential for ESA money to go to students in parochial schools when HB 166 was discussed on the Senate floor this month.


    “I’m OK with that for the most part,” Case said. “But I’m also … worried about what’s going to be taught.”

    For example, he said, “there are plenty of curriculums out there in religious education that teach that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, and that man and all the beasts were formed at the same time” – a concept Case called “absolutely ridiculous.”

    “Will this money go to support (an) elementary school where they teach that the Earth is 6,000 years old?” he asked. “I’m not comfortable going down this road if that can happen. And as I read this bill, I think that can happen.


    “What in the world are we doing? What happened to the enlightened people we had?”

    Wyoming Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, responded to those comments later in the debate, describing himself as “one of those crazy people” who believes that “a flood covered the whole Earth.”

    “This is about freedom,” Salazar said. “This is about giving parents educational freedom. … I’m on the side of trusting the parents to know what’s best for the education of their kids.”


    ‘Teach the science’

    When HB 166 came up on subsequent readings, Case proposed amending the bill to say that an ESA student’s “science instruction shall include study of the geological age of the earth, natural selection and related topics” and that “the parent shall agree to these conditions prior to receipt of any funds.”

    “We have a problem in this country right now in that everybody selects their own information,” Case said. “I don’t want us to become more fragmented, with children being raised in their own set of information that doesn’t relate to everybody else. (Let’s) at least teach the science.”

    He later added that he “can’t accept that taxpayer money would be marshalled … to promote religion.”

    “That’s not right,” Case said.

    Salazar – a self-described “homeschool parent” – said amendments like Case’s are “exactly why homeschoolers fear the state.”

    “You’re dictating to those who, quite frankly, are fundamentalist Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, (and) I’m one of them,” Salazar said. “I don’t believe that this is constitutional, this amendment.”

    Case replied that he generally has no problem “allowing private schools to teach what they want,” but he pointed out that, with HB 166, “we’ve crossed the line into taxpayer money.”

    “That’s the point,” he said. “Taxpayer money cannot go to religious instruction. A 6,000-year-old Earth (is) religious instruction. It’s not science. … You’ve got to allow for children to hear the facts.”

    Case’s amendment failed in a 4-26 vote.


    The new ESA program will be available to students from pre-kindergarten through age 21, Gordon said.

    Parents may apply to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to establish an ESA for their student, according to HB 166, which requires the superintendent to “establish procedures for approving applications in an expeditious manner,” and to “create a standard form that parents may submit to establish their student’s eligibility for the ESA program.”

    The superintendent must also “establish a certification process for education service providers,” according to the bill.

    The legislation will take full effect in July 2025, when HB 166 says $20 million will be appropriated to the ESA from the state general fund.


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