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Are We Throwing Money at MPS?

A closer look at school finances

May. 31, 2016
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At a recent Marquette University forum on the future of education, state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) said that it was time to change the conversation from inputs—that would be money—to outputs, or student performance.

But Kooyenga’s claim was countered by Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) Executive Director Lauren Baker, who argued that money—or inputs, as Kooyenga put it—have a direct impact on student achievement. Baker rattled off a list of statistics showing that Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is financially disadvantaged by policy decisions made by lawmakers like Kooyenga and that additional funding could help to fund the sorts of things that improve student achievement—like smaller class sizes and education specialists.

Taxpayers definitely are not throwing money at MPS, Baker argued.

“I’ve been working in public sector progressive causes for 40 years, and I have yet to see anyone really throw money at anything,” Baker told the Shepherd. “People always say that when they are going to take money out of something.”

Baker said she knew of just one instance where a program was fully funded—the Milwaukee Mathematics Partnership, which targeted students’ math skills. The program had a major impact on raising math scores, Baker said. But the program was cut in Gov. Scott Walker’s first budget, which Kooyenga voted for.

“We threw money at something and we targeted it, we aimed well, it hit the target and it did some real good for kids,” Baker said. “And we took that money away and the rest is kind of history.”

So are inputs related to educational outputs? Let’s break down some of the financial facts facing MPS and public schools around the state.


Revenue Limit Disparity

School funding is a complex matter, as it draws from a variety of revenue sources—federal, state and local money, as well as philanthropic support—but districts must also abide by state-imposed limits on spending. Back in the 1990s, the state developed a revenue limit that’s made up of state aid and local property taxes, which slowly but steadily grew until the Great Recession.

Baker argues that revenue limits are the best way to compare district spending, since each district across the state has one. MPS’ current revenue limit is $10,261 per pupil. That’s roughly in the middle of districts across the state and within Milwaukee County, but it’s lower than many other districts in our region.

Baker pointed out that the per-pupil revenue limit for the Elmbrook School District, in Brookfield, where Kooyenga lives, is $11,568 per pupil, or $1,307 more than MPS’ per-pupil limit. (Kooyenga didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.

Not surprisingly, Elmbrook students score better on standardized tests than MPS students.

MPS Board Director Larry Miller posted more comparisons on his website based on data from the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). For example, the revenue limit of Mequon-Thiensville School District, is $10,662, or $401 more per pupil in MPS. While that disparity may seem small and potentially insignificant, if MPS were able to spend that amount on its students it would mean an additional $32.6 million annually.

Miller also listed nearby suburban districts with higher per pupil revenue limits, including Whitefish Bay ($11,248, or $987 more than an MPS student), Glendale-River Hills, the home district of state Sen. Alberta Darling ($12,752, or $2,491 more than an MPS pupil) and Nicolet School District ($17,794, or $7,713 more than an MPS pupil).

In other words, if MPS could spend as much on its students as Nicolet spends, it would have an additional $626.5 million annually to spend on educating our children.

Miller said it wasn’t fair to allow some districts to spend much more on their students than others.

“When you have the high level of poverty that we have, we need more social services than they do in Mequon,” Miller told the Shepherd. “It’s a horrible kind of inequality.” Essentially you are piling inequity on top of inequity, he said.

Baker said that while MPS’ revenue limit might be in the middle of the pack of districts statewide, its comparatively low revenue limit regionally is a disadvantage not just to MPS, but to the city itself, because its real-world impact informs decisions families make when deciding where to live.

“What kind of buying power do we have in MPS versus our neighboring school districts, and what does that determine?” Baker wondered. “Class size, whether you have specialty teachers, whether you have librarians and counselors, phy ed, all of that. Those are the ways that people make decisions on what school they’re going to send their children to.”

Baker said California has just changed the way it funds its schools, with a guaranteed minimum of support per pupil with extra funding for special needs.

MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia told the Shepherd that MPS believes that “every child in a Wisconsin public school should start out with the same, basic level of funding with additional supports for students with specific needs. Under the current system, there are significant disparities from district to district in that basic level of funding as set by the revenue limit. While some aspects of school funding are incredibly complex, this piece is very simple: All public school students should have the same value in the eyes of the state.”

Wisconsin had committed to funding two-thirds of public education, but that promise was cut about a decade ago. State Superintendent Tony Evers has proposed the Fair Funding for Our Future Plan—which has been totally ignored by Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans—which would adjust the funding formula and, among other things, “create a path back to two-thirds state funding.”

Currently, MPS receives a higher proportion of state aid versus local property taxes within the state-imposed revenue limit, while the wealthier, suburban districts’ revenue is made up of a higher proportion of property taxes.


Crunching More Numbers

MPS, like other districts, has revenue streams outside of its per-pupil revenue limit. Districts receive some state aid targeted to specific needs called categorical aid—to reduce class sizes, help English-language learners and students with disabilities and offer specialty programs, for example—and federal money.

When the nonpartisan and highly respected Public Policy Forum provided an overview of public schools’ finances in Southeastern Wisconsin last fall, it found that in the 2013-2014 academic year, MPS received $14,147 per pupil from federal, state and local sources. That’s higher than the Milwaukee County districts’ average ($12,388), but, Baker warns, MPS serves as a pass-through for federal funding and sends much of those funds to the publicly funded private voucher schools.

“You can say look, MPS gets all of this money. But they don’t keep all of that money,” Baker said.


Impact of Privatization 

Baker also took aim at the impact of publicly funded voucher and charter schools on MPS’ finances. This school year alone, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the official name of the private schools financed by taxpayers via vouchers in Milwaukee, reduced MPS’ state aid by $61 million, according to an August 2015 memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

As startling as that is, the in-the-works Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP), the new charter-based school district proposed by Darling and Kooyenga which turns over struggling MPS schools to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and his appointed Commissioner Demond Means, could do more financial damage, Baker said.

Although the current Abele-Means proposal would take over just one school this year and treat it as an MPS charter, the Darling-Kooygena OSPP legislation allows Means to take over up to three schools in the 2016-2017 academic year, another three schools in the 2017-2018 year, and up to five schools each year thereafter.

If Abele takes over the maximum schools allowed and takes them out of MPS’ control, and those schools are medium-sized elementary or K-8 schools with about 400 students, Baker estimated about $10 million would leave MPS in the OSPP’s first year. If OSPP takes over a total of six schools in its second year, about $22 million would leave MPS. In year three, with 11 schools in the OSPP, that number rises to $41 million taken from MPS, according to Baker’s estimates.

Baker said the legislation would allow the OSPP to ramp up to 12,000 students in its sixth year, while it took the voucher program 14 years to get to that level of student enrollment.

Baker said the OSPP could have a devastating impact on MPS not only by draining funds from the budget but by concentrating special needs students in a system that needs more—not less—resources. Currently, at least 19% of MPS’ students qualified as special needs, a far higher proportion that the student bodies of any voucher or charter school.

“You will increasingly find MPS with less resources and more children who have more needs,” Baker said. “If you look at it right now—the number of therapists in our schools, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, the number of social workers, counselors, all of these folks who provide services for our children—we have less and less of them in schools that need them more and more.”

Miller said the state and federal aid for special education students tops out at 43% of costs for the programming, requiring local school districts to make up the 57% of the costs for providing their services. Unlike vouchers and charters, public schools like those in MPS are required to teach all students.

“We believe in educating students with special needs,” Miller said. “But we believe that the state and the feds—particularly the state—should take on this responsibility. You notice that Kooyenga and his gang of folks never talk about special ed.”

At the forum, Kooyenga asked Baker if she would be willing to raise the amount of per-pupil aid that flows to taxpayer-funded charter and voucher schools, which is less than what public schools receive. Baker responded that she’d be willing to have that conversation when voucher and charter schools have to adhere to the same accountability measures, open meetings and open records laws and the requirement to educate all children, regardless of their ability—mandates that public schools, like those in MPS, follow.


Teachers Feel the Crunch

Throughout the Marquette forum, Kooyenga stressed that he fully supported teachers. Indeed, his wife Jennifer taught briefly at Nicolet High School, he pointed out.

But Baker noted that teachers have been feeling the brunt of the Republicans’ continual attacks on public education. Act 10, which gutted teachers’ collective bargaining rights and forced them to pay more for their benefits, had a devastating financial impact on educators statewide, Baker said.

In MTEA’s last contract negotiations, Baker said the union found that the average mid-career MPS teacher’s compensation plummeted 19% as a result of Act 10’s changes. In addition, raises and step increases were frozen until last year, so MPS teachers had no way to advance their careers or boost their paychecks during that time. Many sought better opportunities elsewhere.

“What happens is our teachers go somewhere where there are raises or they feel like they are compensated better or they have smaller class sizes or those things that dollars actually buy,” Baker said. “And I can’t blame them.”

In its April report, “Help Wanted: An Analysis of the Teacher Pipeline in Metro Milwaukee,” the Public Policy Forum also found that Act 10, and the termination of union contracts post Act 10, correlated with high numbers of teachers leaving the profession. These experienced educators are being replaced by those who are new to the profession with little experience. Even worse, PPF found that there aren’t enough education students preparing to become teachers to fill future demand.

“Overall, we find that there is a shrinking supply of new teachers to replace a steady stream of existing teachers leaving the workforce,” the report concludes. “Moving forward, this dwindling supply will make it harder to replace each teacher vacancy.”

Baker said the constant attacks on teachers by conservatives, as well as the uncertain salaries, have driven teachers from the profession.

“I think it would be really hard for me to find someone who would disagree with the fact that educators have been vilified,” Baker said.


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