Heroes and Villains: How One Man Blocked Opportunity for 5,000 Kids
“Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: 'Please, sir, I want some more.”
These vaguely familiar words come from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist--penned in 1838—about a hungry orphan boy, who simply wants some more bread and gruel. Instead of giving Oliver more food, the master (head chef), aghast at the audacious request, beat Oliver over the head and banished him.
You might expect a more compassionate response from a caretaker, but Dickens meant to portray the true desperation of people like Oliver Twist, and simultaneously spotlight the cruelty and indifference of some who wield power over them.
A similarly shocking turn of events played out in the Wyoming State House last month.
A legislative proposal that would have offered universal Education Savings Accounts to Wyoming students sailed through the Wyoming Senate and appeared poised for passage in the House, with 33 co-sponsors (a majority) on the bill, and a supermajority in favor had a vote been held. Up to 5,000 children would have benefitted from the proposal in year one.
But no vote was held.
The Wyoming Freedom Scholarship Act was killed by one man, Wyoming Speaker of the House, Albert Sommers—a Republican representing Sublette County.
After years of work by champions such as Senator Dave Kinskey, Representatives Cheri Steinmetz, Ocean Andrew, Chip Neiman, and others, the hopes and dreams of 5,000 Wyoming children appear to have been dashed by Sommers’ decision. Despite overwhelming support of the legislature and the public, Sommers chose to squash the bill rather than hold a vote.
Meanwhile, other states are pursuing educational freedom at the speed of light.
By our count as of this writing, 83 bills have been introduced nationwide this session to enact, expand, or improve private educational choice programs for K-12 students. 65 of those proposals, 78 percent, have involved education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses, such as private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services. Ten states currently offer education savings accounts, and rising.
Iowa swiftly rang in the new year by enacting universal education savings accounts for its students. Utah, which shares some 160 miles of border with Wyoming, was the second state of 2023 to boldly enact a universally eligible program for children.
What’s more, school parents are absolutely wild for education savings account programs. According to recent polling by Morning Consult, a whopping 74 percent of school parents nationwide support education savings accounts. Additionally, 40 percent of school parents would choose their regular public school if given the choice. By extension, 60 percent would choose a different option if they could.
In Wyoming specifically, brand new, robust, polling, conducted by Wyoming Family Foundation and ASCEND ACTION, shows Wyoming voters favor Education Savings Account by a greater than 2 to 1 margin, when given a definition. This support by Wyoming voters was consistent across political party, ideology, geographic, and income lines.
Yet, in Wyoming, only seven percent of students have access to private education, and none through a public program. By this measure, Wyoming is dead last in the nation in offering educational freedom and choice to its citizens. The Wyoming Freedom Scholarship Act would have closed the gap between what the citizens want and what their government is offering.
Why would one man so thoroughly flout the democratic, legislative process?
Some within Sommers’ own chamber think he’s catering to special interest groups, rather than listening to the needs of communities.
Regardless of motive, the effect of Sommers’ actions is clear. Thousands of children would have been granted educational opportunity, freedom, and a chance at a better life. Like the cruel master from Dickens’ tale, Sommers has denied them that chance. When it comes to education, children shouldn’t have to beg for more. Hopefully, Sommers will reconsider, put the needs of children over the demands of special interests. The children of Wyoming and beyond can’t afford to wait. They need change right now.