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Is Walker’s K-12 Promise Too Good To Be True?

$648 million increase has some downsides

Feb. 14, 2017
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Photo by iPrimages Flickr CC

After cutting more than $1 billion from the state’s K-12 public schools since 2011, Gov. Scott Walker plans to add $648 million to schools in his next two-year budget, a promise he crowed about in his budget address and one he’ll promote as he’s expected to run for a third term in 2018. 

Walker would add $509 million as a per pupil funding increase. In the first year of Walker’s proposed budget, this new funding would initially be an additional $200 per student, in the second year, an additional $204. This additional money is being distributed outside of the usual manner that state education dollars are allocated. For the past several decades, Wisconsin has utilized an equalization formula that provides thousands of dollars per student each year driven by a formula that provides more money to property-poor school districts, school districts that do not have the property tax base to support decent funding of public schools.

Although the additional funds were welcomed by public school advocates, some, including State Superintendent of Public Schools Tony Evers, are concerned about the details of the governor’s proposal.

“I think $650 million is a good trajectory,” Evers told the Shepherd. “Do I want it to be distributed differently? Yes. Are others concerned because it doesn’t get us back to where we were? I get that. But it’s still $650 million for kids and that’s an important thing.”

Evers had proposed increasing funding $707 million in the next two years, a bit more than Walker’s boost.

But there’s a world of difference between the two proposals. Walker is helping out wealthier districts, while Evers would continue the state’s commitment to providing more aid to districts with a high percentage of disadvantaged students.

And only one will go to the Legislature—Walker’s—although it could be radically altered by the time the entire state budget is finalized.

 

Money Going to Wealthier Districts 

The state’s funding formula for education can be complicated, but, put most simply, the state tries to send more money to poorer districts and less money to wealthier districts, since wealthier communities have more taxable property to support their schools than poorer communities. The general state aid and local property taxes make up the vast majority of a school district’s revenue. Outside of those limits, there’s categorical aid in various forms to help districts with, for example, high levels of poverty, special education or transportation.

The bulk of Walker’s new funding comes in the form of flat, per pupil aid payment outside of the traditional school funding formula. While that may seem fair on the surface by treating each student the same, Walker’s plan actually rewards high-income school districts.

Tamarine Cornelius, a research analyst with the Wisconsin Budget Project, found that the biggest proportion of Walker’s boost would go toward wealthy districts. Cornelius found that districts whose school population includes less than a third of low-income students would see their state aid rise 6.3%. Schools that have between one third and two thirds of low-income students would see a 4.8% increase. In contrast, districts that have more than two thirds of their student population made up of low-income kids—such as Milwaukee Public Schools, which has 80% of its students living in poverty—would see just a 3.6% boost in state aid.

“It’s untargeted,” Cornelius told the Shepherd. “It moves the state away from the commitment to provide more assistance to districts with less capacity to boost local property tax revenues.”

In contrast, Evers’ proposed budget would increase state aid while also tweaking the funding formula to factor in poverty. He’d also increase per pupil aid, but also weight it for factors including poverty and students with disabilities, Evers said.

“The bottom line is that I believe equity should be our value on school funding,” Evers said. “Equity in my worldview means that kids who struggle mightily need more resources. That’s important to me. Frankly, it’s important to those kids.” 

The total amount of revenue each district can spend on its students will remain unchanged in Walker’s proposal except that districts could raise the cap to pay for energy efficiency projects. Evers, in contrast, would raise the cap 2% in each year of the budget, so districts could spend more on their students. 

The current revenue cap fluctuates wildly from district to district. For example, Milwaukee Public Schools’ current revenue limit is $10,261 per pupil. But some wealthy suburban districts can spend much more on their students. For example, Whitefish Bay’s revenue limit is $11,248; Elmbrook School District, $11,568; Glendale-River Hills, $12,752; and Nicolet School District, an eye-popping $17,794 per student.

And, yes, each of the students in these wealthy districts will receive the same amount of Walker’s per pupil aid as the less financially advantaged students in Milwaukee. 

In addition, Walker attached some strings to his increased aid and, not surprisingly, they’re linked to public employee benefits.

School districts can only qualify for their increased per pupil aid if their employees pay at least 12% of their health care costs. That seems to target schools in Madison, but also potentially Wauwatosa and West Allis-West Milwaukee schools. This is totally micromanaging the locally elected school boards. So much for all the talk about local control of our schools.

What’s more, a small amount of the increase is tied to “savings” from creating a self-insurance model for state employees.

Evers, who is facing two challengers in the Feb. 21 primary election, disagreed with linking the new state aid to Act 10 mandates.

“We are facing a looming or already existing teacher shortage,” Evers said. “One of the reasons we are facing that is because of the disrespect we’ve provided the teachers and teaching profession that kind of grew out of Act 10 and was used to implement Act 10. This re-energizes that issue.” 

He also said the state was reaching too deeply into the running of local school districts.

“Tying it to the health insurance piece seems to me to be an over reach, that a state government would reach into school districts and say your personnel policies are inadequate, therefore you’re not going to get this increase,” Evers said. “That’s a stretch.”

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