Claiming to speak on behalf of teachers in Wyoming, the Wyoming Education Association recently joined the Wilderness Society in asserting that relying on oil and gas revenues to fund our schools (and teachers’ salaries) is “dangerous” and does not “provide for the health or well-being of our communities. As a Wyoming public school graduate, and now a Wyoming public school teacher and coach, I want you to know that on this point, the WEA does not speak for me. When I consider my life and career in Wyoming, I’m not convinced by WEA’s pessimism. I believe Wyoming teachers should instead be filled with gratitude.
The WEA’s stated mission is to engage in all “efforts to advance America’s greatest dream: universal, free public education for every child.” An admirable goal, and one I’m proud to be part of in my corner of Wyoming. The truth is, free universal education in Wyoming is only made possible by the oil and gas industry. In fact, the education of our students goes beyond free in Wyoming. Oil and gas pays so much for K-12 education that the rest of us are just part of it. 2020 has been terrible for all of us. It was the worst in memory for oil and gas folks, and yet that industry provided more than $540 million for K-12 education that year. That’s enough revenue to pay the salary of every public school teacher in Wyoming with a little left over.
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Speaking of teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association, Wyoming does better in terms of starting salaries, average salaries, and spending per student than all of our neighboring states. Combined with Wyoming’s low cost of living, teachers in Wyoming enjoy a lifestyle only dreamed of in other parts of the country. As a coach, I am also well aware of the expenses associated with travel for extracurricular activities at our schools. Giving our students the chance to compete with other great schools in Wyoming, whether it’s soccer, football, music, drama, or speech and debate, requires extensive industry-enabled travel oil and gas.
We live in a world full of instinctive reactions. One of them is an unfortunate narrative that portrays the oil and gas industry as “dying”. You don’t have to look far to see that demand for Wyoming’s fossil fuel resources is skyrocketing, and projections continue to predict that the country and the world will continue to need Wyoming’s oil and gas. for decades to come. The industry is resilient and will continue to evolve and grow to help our state and our education system. It’s a good thing because so many people in Wyoming, including family members of teachers, have relied on this vital industry to raise their families.
I understand the desire to look for other sources of income for the schools. Relying so much on one industry is not good policy. In a state as sparsely populated as ours, financing alternatives are hard to come by. In my classroom, I ask students to look at difficult problems and make tough choices about how to answer them. The WEA should be held to a similar standard. I wish they had made even a suggestion of where other sources of income might come from. Instead, they chose to link arms with an anti-oil and gas activist in support of President Biden’s agenda. Abandoning what has made our education system one of the best in the country would be a mistake. To do so without any other plan would be devastating.
I live and work in Wyoming because I respect the values and hard work that make this state the best in the country. The oil and gas industry has contributed so much to our schools and given our students, teachers and administrators the tools to teach, learn and lead.
Mark Lenhardt has 12 years of teaching experience and currently teaches social studies students at Rock Springs High School. He is also the head football coach of the RSHS Tigers.