The recent Christian Science Monitor story describing the financial difficulties faced by schools in rural Wisconsin tells a one-sided story that ignores some important facts.
First, the article presents a narrow view of what has happened to education spending in the Badger State. Wisconsin, like many other states, faced a budget crisis in the wake of the Great Recession. Policymakers were saddled with a $3.6 billion budget deficit when federal stimulus funds expired, requiring smart budgeting and spending cuts. In other words, a one-off infusion of federal money had maintained school spending and either taxes would have to be raised or services cut.
Gov. Scott Walker found a third way. Act 10, his budget repair bill that curtailed collective bargaining, provided schools with the tools to absorb these cuts without layoffs or tax hikes. It allowed superintendents the flexibility to restructure benefits so that employees might contribute their fair share, just as they would in the private sector. It also limited raises for district employees to the level of inflation. The MacIver Institute has estimated that these savings have added up to more than $5 billion since the law’s passage.
But that is only part of the story. As a study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty demonstrated, school districts have been able to maintain their student teacher ratios and have not seen a material decline in the experience level of teachers due to the cost control measures of Act 10. While it is true that spending is down statewide approximately $100 per student since before the end of federal stimulus, we would argue that this small difference is more than made up for by the cost cutting tools of Act 10.
And, as the economy has improved, school funding has increased. Per student spending in Wisconsin has actually increased every year since 2012, up $400 per student, according to data from the state’s Department of Public Instruction. In fact, it has increased in the very district featured in the Monitor’s story. Per pupil spending in Shiocton has increased by more than $600 per student since 2012, from $6,610 to $7,238.
So how could the Monitor have said that there has been a “13 percent” decline in state aid to Shiocton when per pupil aid has actually gone up? It appears to be largely the result of declining enrollment. Since 2009, enrollment in Shiocton is down 7.2%. And just as a business will generally enjoy less revenue if it has fewer customers, a school district will receive less state aid – and must cut costs – when it has fewer students.
But an even more egregious claim in this story is the Monitor’s attempt to blame the district’s budget problems on the statewide school choice program. In Shiocton, the loss of revenue from the choice program was $15,720, or .00033% of the total revenue. To blame the district’s budget problems on the loss of two students to the Choice program is absurd.
In addition, school districts are allowed to increase property taxes to make up for any loss in revenue resulting from school choice. According to a memo from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the vast majority of school districts in Wisconsin saw no fiscal impact or a positive fiscal impact as a result of increased property taxes to recoup the lost revenue from choice students.
School districts in rural Wisconsin do face real challenges, including poverty, teacher retention, and declining population. But this article is a distraction from these challenges, presenting instead a one-sided, biased account that is lacking important context.