The Wyoming House of Representatives sided with the Jackson Hole Classical Academy’s efforts to undermine local control over private schools, approving the first read on legislation that exempts the schools from county zoning regulations.
Senate File 49 passed the second chamber Wednesday by a vote of 31-24, likely a strong enough margin to clear the next two readings in the House, where most legislators seem to have made up their minds.
Before passing the bill, the House nixed two tempering amendments — one to ensure that if a private school closed the property would revert to county zoning laws, and another requiring private schools to abide by the same educational standards as public schools.
“If you want the same rights, you should have the same responsibilities,” said Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Sublette, who introduced the second amendment. “It really takes a chip shot at public education.”
Supporters of the bill argue it puts private schools on an equal footing with public ones. Opponents say Senate File 49 goes too far, holding public schools to a higher standard. Teton County School District No. 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman said as much in a recent letter to state lawmakers.
During more than an hour of discussion about the bill, the representatives debated the merits of Teton County’s zoning restrictions, as well as their role in adjudicating such local issues.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, as well as Sommers, defended the county’s planning process as necessary to protect community character in a region uniquely boxed in by federal land.
Some, like Rep. Landon Brown, R-Laramie, argued that Teton County’s regulations may be cumbersome for private schools. But, he added, “that’s not for this body to decide.” Outlining the fundamentals of democracy, he said the decisions of local officials represent the wishes of the voters that elected them.
“If you don’t like it, you elect new commissioners,” Brown said. “You do not come back down to the Legislature.”
Others countered that point, saying that is exactly what legislators are supposed to do: fix problems. When someone feels they have been treated unfairly by the government closest to them, one option is to take grievances to the state.
“When governments get out of whack, they come to us,” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Fremont. “Having this discussion is not out of the realm of our responsibility.”
With Wyoming’s education funding already stretched thin, several proponents cited the state’s potential savings of $17,000 per student enrolled in a private school.
Some also pointed to the Wyoming Constitution’s reference to education in Article 1, Section 23, which does not seem to draw a line between types of education. Rep. Mike Greear, R-Big Horn/Washakie, and others advocated parents’ rights to choose where they want their children educated.
“The simple fact of the matter,” Greear said, “is there should be no distinction between a public and private school.”
Brown said he would support the bill if private schools faced unfair zoning hurdles statewide. But with Teton County’s Classical Academy being the only instance, he interpreted support for the bill as simply a victory over the political system for the school’s founders, the ultrawealthy Friess family.
“It sets a precedent,” he said, “that if you have a county disagree with you and you don’t like it, and you have enough money, you can come down here and lobby to get a law changed for you.”
If the bill maintains traction through the next two readings in the House, it will go to Gov. Mark Gordon. If he approves it, it will take effect immediately.