By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Even after Gov. Walker’s contentious cuts to school aid in the last state budget, almost $6 billion – nearly one in every five dollars spent by the state – gets plowed into K-12 education every year.
The governor has proposed to hold the line on revenue limits again this budget cycle, essentially freezing per-pupil spending in schools.
Instead, he’s pitching a $129 million increase in state aid, designed to steady property tax levels, not increase classroom spending. He’s also asking for $64 million in incentive payments for public K-12 schools.
The lawmakers are proposing an additional $382 million for public school funding over the next two years, a little more than what Walker has floated for an income tax cut. And about $70 million less than what taxpayers spend on school district administrators in salary and fringe benefits each year.
Taxpayers, again, would be on the hook – at least in part.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, the senators said $229 million would come from the state – shuffling some funds from Walker’s education proposal – and $153 million from local property taxes. Their plan would allow school districts’ revenue caps to rise about $150 a year.
On average, it works out to an $870,000 increase per school district per year.
Ellis told the AP it was a “meager increase.”
Still, more than $100 million for the plan is unaccounted for and would require funding from cuts to other programs, increased taxes and fees or bonding.
Wisconsin Reporter wanted to know more details of the senators’ plan, but a staffer in Olsen’s office declared that information was being worked out, and that it would be released to the AP before it was made available to other news sources.
Ellis did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter.
The senators’ call for more funding comes after a chorus of jeers over Walker’s proposal, including from the state’s superintendent of Public Instruction.
“Our public schools experienced historic cuts in the last budget, on top of two decades of revenue caps. The real losers have been our children in public schools, who already have 5,200 fewer staff and teachers in their schools,” Superintendent Tony Evers wrote in a statement following Walker’s budget release.
Since 2003, statewide enrollment has also declined by nearly 8,000 students while local school district property tax levies have increased by $1.5 billion. Spending per student has increased nearly $2,000 and even with the reduction in teachers, Wisconsin students enjoy a 15.2-to-1 student to teacher ratio, exceeding the national average.
Michael Birkley, a lobbyist with Wisconsin Property Taxpayers Inc., said while he was sympathetic to school administrators, property taxpayers are already being taxed to the hilt.
“If they need more money, they’ve got to make the case for it,” Birkley said of school districts. “They’ve got to make the case to the state for (general program revenue) dollars, or if a school district can convince their property taxpayers to spend more because that will help schools, they can go to referendum. And property taxpayers can weigh in.”
Birkley said about 80 percent of referendums to increase taxes for Wisconsin schools are eventually passed.
Public school boards across the state are asking taxpayers for more than $400 million in new debt issuance this year alone, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.
School boards also are asking to exceed local revenue limits by more than $100 million.
Wisconsin ranks 12th among states in per capita property tax burden, according to the Tax Foundation.
While the governor’s budget would just about freeze spending for public education, the school choice program would see its largest funding increase in state history, drawing the ire of the public education establishment.
“Despite a state surplus, the governor is ‘flat-lining’ public school budgets across the state, forcing school boards to freeze their budgets while giving huge increases to voucher schools that aren’t part of the state’s accountability system,” Mike Blecha, legislative liaison for the Green Bay Area School Board and first vice president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, wrote in a statement.
Under Walker’s plan, Green Bay students would become eligible for private school vouchers. Walker would expand vouchers to nine additional school districts in the state, if those districts have two failing or near-failing schools. Green Bay lost a net 821 students to general open enrollment in the 2010-2011 school year.
Voucher advocates say the proposed funding boost is insignificant compared to the cost of public education in Wisconsin.
“It’s a fly on a horse’s back compared to the overall budget,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. “Funding for voucher schools has been basically flat for a decade.”
Funding for voucher students would increase from $6,442 to $7,050 in grades K-8 and $7,856 for grades 9-12 under Walker’s proposal. Wisconsin taxpayers spend roughly $10,000 per student on average in public schools, while federal taxpayers kick in an additional $1,000 or so.
Bender said the voucher program provides better educational bang for the taxpayer buck.
“Our academic return on investment is far higher,” he said. “We get higher graduation rates, higher college rates, return on investment is enormous. From a public policy perspective, it’s a very smart way to invest money.”
A five-year study by the University of Arkansas found “enrolling in a private high school through (Milwaukee’s school choice program) increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college, and persisting in college by 4-7 percentage points.” Student achievement was also higher in most areas for Milwaukee voucher students.
Aside from the upfront per student cost difference, choice schools don’t carry burdens – capital outlays, debt and interest payments and retiree benefits – forward to future taxpayers.
Ellis has scoffed at Walker’s proposal to expand the voucher program, saying local residents should vote in a referendum before vouchers are brought to their school districts.
It is not clear whether Ellis and Olsen would bolster public school funding by shifting the increased spending Walker targets for choice schools.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org.