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Wisconsin May Be Violating a Child’s Constitutional Right to an Education

New study sheds more light on the issue

May. 21, 2013
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Is Wisconsin providing each child a “sound basic education,” as required by the state constitution?

If you’re a low-income student, the answer is likely no, according to a Forward Institute report released last week.

Schools that educate impoverished students have been hurt the most by the state’s funding cuts to public education in the past decade. The disparity will only deepen if Gov. Scott Walker’s education proposals are passed in the next biennial budget.

Scott Wittkopf, chair of Forward Institute, said the state’s commitment to funding education for all students is so weak it’s unconstitutional.

“The fundamental nature of our values is reflected in the state constitution, which guarantees all children equal access to educational opportunity in our public schools,” Wittkopf said during an unveiling of his organization’s report last week at City Hall. “That constitutional right is now being systematically eroded and defunded.”


State School Aids Have Plummeted

In a 2000 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, the court found that the state must provide “sufficient resources so that school districts offer students the equal opportunity for a sound basic education as required by the constitution.”

Back then, the court ruled unanimously that the state’s funding formula passed that test.

But times have changed.

“There have been tweaks of this formula for years,” said State Superintendent Tony Evers. “It did pass constitutional scrutiny. I don’t know if it does still. It’s changed so much since that time.”

State funds no longer provide the bulk of schools’ funding and schools now rely on local property taxes and federal aid for the majority of their revenue.

When adjusted for inflation, Wisconsin is spending less on public education than it has in more than 17 years, the Forward Institute found.

Walker cut $1.6 billion from state schools in his first two-year budget, which hit the poorest districts the hardest. Districts with the most students in poverty lost $702.97 per student, while the most affluent districts lost $318.70 per student. High-poverty districts also lost the most experienced teachers in the post-Act 10 era in which educators’ right to collectively bargain has been thrown into question.

Although Walker proposes to send roughly an additional $111 million to state schools in the next two years, [Editor's Note: the amount going toward traditional public schools is just $39 million.] he’s also prohibiting local districts from raising property taxes to increase classroom resources. Instead of boosting classroom resources, Walker’s funding bump will provide property tax relief.

Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Michael Bonds decried the current funding formula, saying, “The way the system is set up now, I don’t know how sustainable MPS is.”


Deepening the Divide Between Rich and Poor

The Forward Institute researchers argue that the state is depriving the Wisconsin’s poorest districts of funding and diminishing their ability to provide an adequate education for our most impoverished students.

The researchers pointed to the state’s report cards, which are so strongly aligned with poverty levels that a student’s performance can be predicted based solely on his or her family’s income.

Instead of trying to raise the academic performance of low-income students, the Forward Institute argues that Walker’s budget proposal will increase the achievement gap between affluent and poor students.

  • Walker wants to expand voucher schools to an additional nine districts with low-performing schools, whether local residents want them or not. But that expansion will only decrease state aid to struggling schools with high levels of poverty while sending state aid to private schools with few accountability measures.
  • Walker also plans to send $30 million to schools that significantly improve their report card scores while providing $10 million in competitive grants to under-performing districts. The Forward Institute found that this would only deepen the divide between rich and poor districts by rewarding teachers of affluent children and punishing those who educate the state’s poorest kids.
  • The state’s stalled economy during the Walker era is negatively impacting students. Almost half of all Wisconsin public school students are now defined as “economically disadvantaged,” a result of Walker’s anemic job creation efforts. The performance of newly low-income students seems to have boosted the test scores of impoverished children overall. But the Forward Institute predicts that if Wisconsin’s economy continues to sputter and students remain in poverty, their test scores will drop.

Evers and the Forward Institute researchers called for the adoption of Evers’ Fair Funding formula, which would increase state aid for schools overall, but especially for those schools with a high level of impoverished students. Although his recommendations and the governor’s plan are worlds apart, Evers said he hoped that legislators would add in more state funding for schools in the current budget and implement the Fair Funding formula in the years ahead.

“I believe that this is a good time to reconsider our Fair Funding formula,” Evers said. “The system is broken. There is no one who is standing up and saying that it’s working exactly the way we want it to.”


Questions About Voucher Schools’ Diplomas

In a move that has public school advocates crying foul, Walker has proposed to increase the amount of a taxpayer-funded voucher for private school tuition at the same time public school funding has flatlined.

The Forward Institute charges that this further erodes the state’s commitment to adequately fund schools that serve low-income children.

Even worse, the group found that voucher schools aren’t a good investment for state taxpayers because so few voucher students are performing well on standardized tests.

Both MPS and voucher schools receive $6,442 in state aid per pupil. But MPS students score higher than voucher students on state tests, with 59.7% achieving proficiency or advanced levels in reading and 50.3% in math. Voucher schools, in contrast, show just 56.4% proficiency in reading and 39.9% proficiency in math.

The Forward Institute calculated that it cost MPS $10,783 per student to achieve proficiency in reading but it cost voucher schools $11,422 per student to do so. Similarly, it cost MPS $12,812 per student to achieve proficiency in math, but it cost voucher schools a whopping $16,145 per student to do so.

Walker’s proposal would send more state funds to these underperforming private voucher schools while weakening public schools’ funding stream.

The researchers also disputed the value of a voucher school’s high school diploma and indicated that voucher students, like their public school peers, are not receiving a constitutionally required sound basic education.

Comparing the graduation rates in voucher schools to the level of proficiency these students showed when they were tested in the 10th grade, the numbers are viewed by many experts as absolutely ridiculous. For each voucher student who is proficient in math when tested in 10th grade, two years later when it comes to graduation time another 49 voucher students who were not proficient in math in 10th grade miraculously becomes proficient and graduate.   

“It is widely accepted that if a student does not test proficient by grade 10, they will not likely be proficient by graduation,” the authors noted.

The Walker administration did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.


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