PINEDALE, Wyo. -- Thanks to natural gas, Wyoming's schools have money to burn.
In the little Pinedale district, way out in sagebrush country, for example, every fifth-grader has a new laptop. Many lessons are shown on oversized computer screens instead of chalkboards. There are plans for a $17.2 million aquatic center, with a three-story climbing wall and a competition-size pool.
Rising production and soaring prices for natural gas have helped Wyoming produce huge budget surpluses over the past few years -- $1.8 billion in 2006 alone and $900 million the year before that. And much of it has been pumped back into education.
The revenue could vault Wyoming above the rest of the country in per-student spending and represents a historic opportunity to transform education in this state and make it perhaps the finest in the country.
The big money has left Jim McBride, the state's superintendent of public instruction, full of big and bold predictions.
``We probably will have the nation's number one graduation rate, maybe college attendance rate. We probably will have the highest NAEP scores," he said, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.
Wyoming ranked 22 d in 2002-03 with a graduation rate of 74 percent; its college enrollment rate was 52 percent, compared with 58 percent nationally; and its NAEP test scores for math, reading, and science in 2005 placed it above the middle of the pack.
Wyoming is pumping more than 1.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year -- enough for one in three homes in the United States -- in a boom that has been going on nearly five years.
Divvying up the wealth last winter, the Legislature boosted school spending for this academic year 24 percent to more than $12,400 per pupil. That is close to the top state, New Jersey, at $12,981. Massachusetts spent $10,693 per pupil.
And that's not counting the $1 billion Wyoming started pouring into school construction a few years ago. Nor does it include a $400 million endowment set up this past winter to provide scholarships for Wyoming high school graduates. Those with a 3.0 grade point average and a score of 21 on the ACT admissions exam will receive nearly a free ride to the University of Wyoming.
``It takes more than money," Pinedale Superintendent Charles Grove said. ``But money, if it's spent wisely, will help do the things that need to be done."