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State memo on school funding tells less than half the story

By   /   June 24, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

A memo from the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau released by Wisconsin Democrats is not telling the whole story on how per-pupil funding for private school-choice vouchers compares with traditional public schools.

The memo says the voucher amount is $7,210 for kindergarten through eighth grade, and $7,856 per pupil in high school, while the state aid per pupil in public schools is $5,108.

But those numbers cherry-pick funding sources, making the comparison not even up to apples-to-oranges standards.

Photo provided by School Choice Wisconsin

GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT: “I think the point of this memo, it all depends on how you ask the question of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau,” school choice advocate Jim Bender said.

Actual spending per pupil in the state’s public schools is $13,031 when all funding sources are added, including local property taxes, federal aid and additional state categorical aid. For Milwaukee Public Schools, total revenue per pupil is $14,599 for the 2014-15 school year. The funding for the state’s school choice programs comes exclusively from the state’s general purpose revenue in the state budget — meaning the voucher is the total amount of per pupil aid those schools receive from taxpayers.

“I think the point of this memo, it all depends on how you ask the question of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau,” Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said in an interview Friday. “So what they do is try to make very selective requests of the Fiscal Bureau to omit contextual data so they can get their one slice of a pie out there.”

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau is a nonpartisan agency responsible for fiscal analyses to the Wisconsin legislature and its members. The memo was requested by Democratic state Sen. Janet Bewley. The memo also says general school aid has been cut $200 per pupil since Gov. Scott Walker took office, while funding for school choice students has grown by $911.

In a press release accompanying the LFB memo, Bewley blamed increased spending on voucher programs for cuts in per pupil funding.  “It’s outrageous that public school students in a state that values public education have faced these cuts and property taxpayers have too often been asked to make up the difference,” Bewley said.

SEE RELATED: Despite rhetoric, Wisconsin still above average in K-12 spending

Bender said the cut in per pupil funding for public schools came at the time of Act 10, the legislation passed in 2011 that ended collective bargaining for schools over work conditions and benefits. According to the MacIver Institute, Act 10 has saved state taxpayers over $5 billion since it became law.

“So the reduction in state aid was also given with flexibility and reduction in costs,” Bender said. “In the end, while the state was allocating slightly fewer dollars, you get the same or slightly greater level of service. … That is clearly omitted from any of this and that’s intentional.”

SEE RELATED: Study shows fears about Act 10’s impact on classroom are unfounded

School choice is actually providing a better return on investment for Milwaukee’s taxpayers, too, according to Bender.

“The low-income kids in the voucher program beat, across all income levels, [Milwaukee Public Schools] top to bottom. And they did that at a lower amount,” Bender said. “So we’re talking about more efficiency and a better return on investment. If you’re a taxpayer, and you’re looking for better graduation rates and higher test scores and you’re getting that at a reduced cost, that makes perfect sense.”

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James Wigderson is a Wisconsin-based reporter for Watchdog. He is also an online contributor to MacIver Institute and RightWisconsin, blogs at the Wigderson Library and Pub, and was formerly an award-winning local columnist for the Waukesha Freeman. James is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives in Waukesha, WI, with his wife Doreen and their children.