ANALYSIS: Wisconsin School Referendums Pass at Lowest Rate Since 2013

By: Will Flanders

While voters in the Wisconsin state superintendent’s race stuck with the status quo candidate, there is growing evidence around the state that voters are fed up with the current state of Wisconsin education, and are growing less willing to provide more money for it.

There were 71 referenda on the ballot around the state this spring. Voters only approved 42 of them—a 60.56% passage rate. While this number may seem relatively high, it is actually extremely low in comparison to recent years. The figure below shows the referenda passage rate over the last ten years. Spring and fall passage rates are combined for ease of understanding.

In the early part of the last decade, passage rates hovered between 50 and 70%. However, since a relatively low passage rate in 2017, rates have shot up over the past three years to more than 75%. The passage rate in Spring 2021 is the lowest since 2013. Among the most questionable referenda on the ballot this year was an attempt by Waterford to increase local property taxes to pay a school resource officer—something most other districts are able to do with their existing funds, and an attempt by Cambridge to construct a Performing Arts Center. Both of these measures were among those that failed.

Given that the rate of passage does vary quite a bit over time, it is possible this is just an aberration, and that passage rates will return to higher levels in subsequent cycles. But there is some reason to believe that this could, instead, be representative of an attitude shift. Since the end of Obama-era stimulus in 2012, the state has increased spending every year. This rate of increase only accelerated under Governor Tony Evers. Additionally, the approximately $2.2 billion in federal stimulus money coming into districts from the federal government represents about 42% of all the money spent on general aid in the state on an annual basis. This funding is largely required to be on top of existing spending, meaning that existing state and local aid cannot be reduced thanks to this federal largess. If districts are going to see this massive infusion of new funds, why would they still be attempting to raise property taxes on their residents?

The table below shows the ten largest referenda on the ballot in April and whether they passed or failed, along with the amount of federal funding the district will receive through stimulus. The amount of federal funding received per student varies substantially, from as low as $282 per student in Hortonville to as high has $2,623 in Cumberland. But there does not appear to be much relationship between the amount of federal funds and passage rates. If nothing else, residents in these districts that passed referenda on top of large federal payouts should demand accountability for how this windfall is spent.

Perhaps the biggest potential cause for a shift in attitudes would be what families have learned about school districts during the pandemic. Many districts around Wisconsin failed to offer in-person instruction for an extended period of time, despite scientific evidence that reopening was safe. Among the districts with failed referenda were Howards Grove, which only returned to in-person learning at the end of November, and Wisconsin Heights, which doesn’t plan to have all students back in the classroom until April 12. A deeper dive into the data would be needed to definitively establish the role of extended closures.

Whatever the cause, this is an opportunity for educational leaders to accept the reality that public schools across the state of Wisconsin are already well-funded. The lowest funded districts in the state receive more revenue per student than any of our choice and charter schools, which get better results for students at a lower cost. Perhaps instead of another round of referenda, school districts should look to the choice and charter sector, and attempt to become more efficient rather than soaking local taxpayers for even more money.

Will Flanders is research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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