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Memo comparing voucher and public school aid doesn’t tell whole story

By   /   March 20, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Democrats assert a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo shows state aid to schools participating in one of Wisconsin’s three private school voucher programs will receive approximately $1,000 more in per-pupil funding than the average public school under Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget.

Photo from state legislature.

MISSING FROM THE MEMO: A memo from the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau requested by state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, shows more state aid to voucher schools than public schools. But the memo does not take into account all state spending.

School choice supporters say that the memo is deceptive – again – because it doesn’t count all money going to public schools.

The memo to Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, prepared by the fiscal bureau, shows that voucher payments for a K-8 pupil would equal $7,540 in 2017-18 and $7,757 in 2018-19. Voucher payments for a student enrolled in grades 9-12 would equal $8,186 in 2017-18 and $8,403 in 2018-19.

State per-pupil aid under the governor’s proposed budget, based on 2017-18 enrollment figures, would be $6,703 on average.

The LFB is a nonpartisan agency responsible for fiscal analyses for the Wisconsin Legislature and its members.

“Even as property taxpayers and the families of more than 850 thousand public school students are promised more,” Bewley said in a press release accompanying the memo, “tax dollars are siphoned off to voucher schools and independent charters that get first place in line, take $1,000 to $1,700 more per student and too often force property taxpayers to make up the difference.”

“For the last three sessions Republicans have devised plans to slip more for voucher school lobbyists into the bill, and my guess is we can expect more of the same,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, in the same press release. “This memo shows why families with students in public schools and property taxpayers should be very wary of GOP plans to widen this gap at the public’s expense.”

But the Democrats fail to note that the fiscal bureau memo does not include all funding for public schools, according to a coalition of supporters of Wisconsin’s voucher programs. 

“Funding for public K12 schools in Wisconsin contains many different streams including state equalized aid, local property taxes, state categorical aids and federal aids,” a statement by School Choice Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Federation for Children and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty asserts.“Funding for the Parental Choice Programs contain only one – direct state aid.” 

The voucher-supporting groups said the Democrats are trying to make it look like public schools have less money than schools in the voucher programs. But when state equalized aid and local property taxes are combined, the average per-student expenditure was $10,312 for 2016, according to the coalition’s statement. That does not include categorical aids and federal funding.  

“When compared in full, students in the Parental Choice Programs will receive thousands of dollars less per child than a student in a traditional public school,” the coalition states.

Walker’s budget proposal includes $648.9 million in new state aids for K-12 education. Of that, $509 million is allocated for a per-pupil funding increase for public schools, provided the school system can show employees are paying 12 percent of their healthcare premiums and 6 percent of their pension costs for the school districts to receive the extra dollars, as allowed under Act 10.

Enacted in 2011, Act 10 eliminated collective bargaining for public employee benefits. Since Walker signed the bill into law, the Madison-based MacIver Institute says Wisconsin taxpayers have saved over $5 billion.

This additional spending means a $200 per-pupil increase in 2017-18 and $204 increase in 2018-19 in categorical aid, which means it is not part of the state’s school aid equalization formula, but is included in the $6,703 total in the memo. The increase in public school per-pupil aid is roughly the same as the $217 per-pupil increase on average for the state’s voucher programs.

SEE RELATED: Report shows Democrats ignore key data in school funding debate

This is not the first time the Democrats have used a memo from the LFB with incomplete information to try to score political points.

In June, Bewley requested another memo from the LFB to try to show that state aid for schools is down since 2010, the year before Walker took office. That memo, too, did not include local property taxes, federal aid and additional state categorical aid, and included a one-time education spending cut that coincided with savings from the passage of Act 10.

In August, Bewley received another memo from the LFB which she claimed showed three-quarters of the state’s school districts are receiving less general aid than before the Republican governor took office in 2011. However, that memo did not include changes in enrollment, local property taxes and other forms of state aid.

In addition, the August memo did not include the cut in federal aid for education. Republicans produced their own memo at the time showing state aid to Wisconsin’s school districts is actually up since 2011.

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

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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.