What the Opposition to Public School Spending Transparency Reveals

Will Flanders, Research Director

The Assembly and Senate passed a common-sense reform to make data on school-level spending available to the public in a user-friendly, online portal. Assembly Bill 387/Senate Bill 373 received bi-partisan support in the Assembly, along with the endorsement of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI)— the state agency tasked with developing and presenting the information. But Democrats in the Senate saw fit to oppose the measure, voting almost unanimously against it (Senator Pfaff voted in favor). The reason? Democrats in the Senate saw an opportunity to attack their favorite target: private schools in the state’s school choice programs.  

Senator Chris Larson, with other Democratic members of the Senate, introduced an amendment to subject the state’s private schools that receive more than 80% of their revenue from parental choice programs to the same financial accountability standards advanced by the bill for public schools. This was designed to put legislators in support of transparency on the defensive, and deflect from the very important issue that was under debate.  

What the Democrats failed to realize is that private schools in the choice program already have the most direct accountability possible: the parents of students that choose to attend their schools. Peer-reviewed research by myself and Corey DeAngelis shows that schools in the choice program are responsive to market forces. The schools that provide an effective learning environment see enrollment growth, while those that are less effective shrink, or have left the market entirely.  

Moreover, choice schools are subject to an annual financial audit from DPI that can lead to a school’s removal from the program if taxpayer money is found to be misused. The schools are also required to show that they have sufficient funding on hand to cover all of the state aid that they receive. The same cannot always be said for traditional public schools, which often are rewarded with funding increases despite a record of inefficiency with taxpayer money.   

With so much additional spending on public schools coming as a result of the state budget and federal COVID-relief funds, more scrutiny on district spending is urgent. WILL research has previously highlighted substantial amounts of money in public education that are going to things other than directly educating children—in some districts more than half.  What is being funded instead?  In many cases, it is layer-upon-layer of educational bureaucracy that may well create local jobs, but does little to actually educate Wisconsin’s children. Seeing this information more clearly, teachers may begin to wonder why there is over $280,000 in taxpayer money represented among the kids in their class, but their salary is well less than half that amount.  

We are entering a new era of parental empowerment. Information is power. Parents want to know what is going on in the classroom and many are taking steps to take on renegade school boards. Providing parents with the necessary tools to better understand the finances in their district, along with curriculum transparency, may change the conversation on education in Wisconsin. Maybe that’s what the opponents are afraid of. 

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