WILL Policy Review | Wisconsin JFC Democrats Trying to Play Oprah With K-12 Budget Proposal

A look at the education proposal released last week by Wisconsin Democrats reveals a party trying to play Oprah. Only, instead of giving away cars with her own money, Democrats want to give out money to school districts on the backs of Wisconsin taxpayers.  While its chance of passage is nil, it is useful to examine what Wisconsinites can expect if the Democrats ever regain control of the statehouse.

Implement Superintendent Ever’s Fair Funding Initiative.  The term “fair funding” sounds good on its face.  After all, who could oppose giving equal amounts of money to every student in the state?  The first part of the plan would guarantee a certain amount of state aid to every district, including those that currently receive almost none.  While the perception might be that this would help poor districts in desperate need of help, in reality this would be a boon for Wisconsin’s most property rich school districts.  This is because the current funding formula provides state aid on something of a sliding scale, with poorer districts receiving more than wealthier districts.  It is unclear why greater burden should be placed on state taxpayers for school districts that don’t need a boost.  A second aspect of the plan creates a 20% weight on funding for the number of students in poverty.  Rather than increasing equity, this “new math” would mean that a dollar in the suburbs is not treated the same as a dollar in Milwaukee.  All of this to fix a funding system that, while it could potentially be tweaked to some extent, isn’t broken in terms of equity.

Restore funding to low-spending districts beyond Republican proposals.  More than anything else, the Democrats proposal shows that Republicans will never be able to outspend Democrats. The Assembly Republican plan for low-spending districts already calls for increasing spending in low-spending districts from $9,100 per student to $9,800 per student—a $700 increase per student.  The evidence shows that there are diminishing returns on additional education spending.  Indeed, reasonable arguments can be made that the Republican proposal is already too much.  The Democratic proposal represents less a sound policy and more of a giveaway to school districts where voters have already rejected increased spending in many cases through referenda.

Allow voters to determine if funding should be provided to choice schools.  This is perhaps the most insidious proposal included in the Democrats plan.  Funding for Wisconsin’s parental choice programs has become a boogeyman for the left, with the artificial specter that these programs take a larger and larger share of education dollars.  Despite the overheated rhetoric, spending on school choice programs constitutes just 2.41% of the state’s combined program and public K-12 expenditures according to recent work by EdChoice.   Moreover, school districts are already able to able to retain revenue (for kids they no longer educate) via property taxes.   It is unclear why Democrats believe that parents who simply want better opportunities for their kids should face any more scrutiny for their decisions than parents who stick with the status quo.

The Democrats K-12 education proposal isn’t going anywhere. It’s more of a campaign document for their 2018 races. Nevertheless, there appears to be consensus among Democrats that Wisconsin school districts not only need and deserve more money, but that they need a lot more. Unfortunately, no one is asking whether these new dollars will serve Wisconsin students in the way of better education outcomes.

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