A new report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) debunks Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling’s claim that a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) shows the legislature cut funding to school districts.
“We don’t dispute the Legislative Fiscal Bureau,” said CJ Szafir, vice president of policy for WILL, in an interview Tuesday. “They’re an outstanding organization. We really respect their work and what they did was right. The problem is they only answer the question that they get asked. If you ask a biased question, you’re going to get a biased, skewed answer, which is what happened with Senator Shilling.”
In an Aug. 15 press release, Shilling said the LFB memo showed, “over 75 percent of Wisconsin school districts have seen their state funding cut below 2010 levels with 49 districts losing more than half of their general aid support.”
“Republicans have used their power to repeatedly cut school funding in order to shift more state dollars to their special interest allies,” Shilling said in the release.
WILL looked at the changes in the funding for school districts over the past five years to determine if the drops in funding were the result of policy decisions by legislative Republicans or other factors in the state’s complex funding formula.
“Shilling was very strategic in the years that she chose for her memo,” Will Flanders, education research director for WILL, told Watchdog. “In the Great Recession, there was a tremendous stimulus package that was provided to states across the country, a temporary stimulus.”
“The year that Shilling chose for her analysis was the peak of that funding,” Flanders said. “If you go back one year earlier, you can see that state aid, or general aid, is more comparable to what it is today, in 2008-2009 than it was in 2010-2011 because that was the peak of the stimulus package.”
Flanders said the LFB memo doesn’t take into account enrollment declines. “Through the complicated revenue formula, state aid is to changes in enrollment relative to other districts throughout the state,” Flanders said. “And what we see is the districts that lost the highest amount of aid were those districts that had the largest declines in enrollment, which is perfectly logical.”
The LFB memo also only focused on general state aid and did not capture all the revenue spent per pupil, according to Flanders. He said a better measure is the state’s revenue limits for local school districts because that captures all state spending: general school aid, property taxes and other local aid.
“What you see then is the per-pupil revenue limit hasn’t changed substantially over the time period in question,” Flanders said. “Students in Wisconsin today are getting just about as much on average through the revenue limit as they were in 2010-11.”
The report also address the issue of districts that have lost more than half their general aid. Those districts had the highest property tax bases and were not receiving that much aid before.
“They may not be independently wealthy districts, but they’re districts where their ratio of property tax base to the student is very high,” Flanders said. “And they’re districts in a lot of cases where they didn’t receive any equalization aid at all to begin with.”
Finally, the savings from Act 10 were not taken into account, according to Flanders. Enacted in 2011, Act 10 eliminated collective bargaining for public employee benefits. Since it was passed, the MacIver Institute says Wisconsin taxpayers have saved over $5 billion.
Szafir said what’s important is that people realize the school funding issue is more complicated than how Democrats present it.
“There’s a lot of moving parts. We’re talking about changes in enrollment, changes in the property tax base,” he said. “That is a large factor which will determine what a school district gets from the state.”
“It’s also worth understanding and know that the state gives money and property taxpayers give money to public schools,” Szafir said. “And that’s the financing system the state invented a long time ago.”
He also noted that an increase in public school funding doesn’t always correlate to a boost in student achievement.
“I think that’s worth keeping in mind as we go forward in this debate that we’ll have on the budget and how much the state should fund public schools,” Szafir said.