Wisconsin Democrats hoping to recapture the state Legislature are touting a memo from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that purports to show that three-quarters of the state’s school districts are receiving less general aid than before Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011.
One problem with that: the memo tells only a small portion of the story.
Requested by Democratic state Sen Janet Bewley, the memo shows the 2010-11 and 2015-16 net general aid payments to the state’s school districts and provides a comparison for each.
“This report highlights the challenges facing local schools and families as a result of misplaced Republican priorities that favor the wealthy and special interests,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling in a statement. “Republicans have used their power to repeatedly cut school funding in order to shift more state dollars to their special interest allies. It’s time to stop short-changing our children and start investing in our state’s future.”
Will Flanders, education research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, said in an interview Wednesday the memo is misleading because Democrats asked a biased question leading to a biased response from the LFB.
“The memo does not account for the overall per pupil funding in the district. So all this is looking at is the state components of aid,” Flanders said. “It’s looking at the equalization aid and it’s looking at some other smaller components of state aid. Of course we know if you want to get a good picture of the funding per student in the state, you also have to take into account property taxes. And when you take into account property taxes, the picture is far less dire.”
“So while some districts have lost state aid to some extent, the overall per pupil funding in a lot of these districts in the state is very close to the same,” Flanders said.
Flanders also said that the memo does not take into account changes in enrollment for the school districts that lost state aid.
“What our preliminary analysis showed is a lot of the districts have experienced declines in enrollment to a greater extent than the state as a whole,” Flanders said. “And since the intricacies of the state funding formula take into account declines in enrollment relative to changes in other districts that necessarily, and logically I would say, leads to changes in the amount of money the district receives over time.”
The memo also includes the 2011-12 school year, the one year when school aid was cut under Walker. It does not mention the savings for school districts under Act 10, passed in 2011, which limited the collective bargaining powers of public employee unions in Wisconsin. The MacIver Institute has calculated state taxpayers have saved over $5 billion since the passage of Act 10.
“Many of those savings were realized at the district level,” Flanders said. “And this just looks at the cost. It doesn’t take into account any of those benefits.”
Jim Bender, president of Wisconsin School Choice, said there’s a reason the LFB memo was so misleading. “There is an art form to asking for specific information on fiscal matters to push a narrative without context,” Bender said. “Without mention of the stimulus dollars used in (former Gov.) Jim Doyle’s last budget or the massive savings afforded public schools through Act 10, this memo skips past objectivity to where it was intended – politics.”
“I think the nonpartisan group, they can only do what they’re asked. If they go beyond, they have to be sensitive to what the other side will read into it,” Flanders said. “So I think, the important thing for policy makers to do is ask the right questions.”
“We can get a more complete picture of funding from LFB if we ask for what is the revenue limits by district. That’s the kind of stuff we’re working on right now,” said Flanders. “I can understand why they can only do what they’re asked. But, unfortunately when policy makers are asking questions that have the tinge of bias, then we get results that look like this memo.”
State Rep. Dale Kooyenga said the focus of the memo was on the wrong question. “As is typical, the Democrats and the media focus on the inputs, not the outputs,” Kooyenga said in a statement. “The fact is Wisconsin’s education system is seeing better outcomes than five years ago since the GOP has taken control and school districts have significantly more flexibility. The exception being liberal monopolies like Milwaukee.”
Kooyenga called the Democrats’ attack an “Enron-like political manipulation from the type of leadership that refuses to deal with the fact Milwaukee is a war zone because they beg for more money, not better results.”