By: Will Flanders, Research Director
As we come to the close of National School Choice Week, there are many things worthy of celebration. Across the nation, more students than ever before have the ability to access the school that works best for them and their family. In Wisconsin, nearly one quarter of students are exercising some form of school choice—ranging from open enrollment to private choice and charter schools. We have come a long way since private school choice began with less than 300 students in Milwaukee in 1990. But it is also worth recognizing that we still have a long way to go in order to fully realize the vision of universal school choice.
One of the biggest remaining impediments to that vision in Wisconsin is the huge disparities that exist in funding between various school sectors. A child who attends a traditional public school in Milwaukee is worth more than $4,000 more in the eyes of government than that same child if they attend the private choice school down the street. This is consistent not only with private school choice, but also with the funding provided to charter schools and the open enrollment program. Perhaps to protect the existing public-school monopoly, almost all alternative options must make do with less.
We have seen the problems this causes come to light in a variety of sectors recently. Hope Christian High School—one of the better non-selective high schools in Milwaukee—is being forced to shut its doors because it simply can’t educate high school students for $9,000 per student. In the charter school sector, teachers at Carmen are clamoring to unionize because the school can’t compete with the salaries paid in MPS. Both of these examples highlight the desperate need to allow money to follow the child rather than be tied to a school system.
With news of a large surplus, proposals are being floated for additional spending on education. But rather than throw more money at schools systems with a proven track record of failing kids, the time is now to move to more student-centered funding models.
There are a number of steps that would be required to fully realize such a system, and none of them would be easy. The Wisconsin Constitution requires that local property taxes be spent on local schools, which makes any broad reform a challenge because a sizable portion of spending on schools comes from property taxes in this state. Student-centered funding requires some method of addressing this barrier.
Additionally, moving towards such a system requires a far more dynamic funding model. Currently in Wisconsin, school districts continue to receive revenue for students who left the district as many as three years ago. This system is a relic of the past when information traveled slowly, and insulated districts from rapid budget shifts. That said, other schools in the state—charter, private choice and fully private—enjoy no such insulation and must remake their budgets annually based on enrollment. In this modern age of connectivity, we know where each student in the state is every day of the semester. There is no reason that funding shouldn’t more rapidly reflect that.
Finally, a student-centered funding model ought to take student characteristics into account. WILL has already highlighted the exciting possibilities for weighted student funding, which would fund students based on their needs—such as ELL status or disability—rather than the accident of their home address. There are a number of pathways to make this happen. A first step might be to require that such a system be implemented within school districts for all the schools within their borders—including choice and charter.
In this current era of parental empowerment, it feels like the goals are far more realistic than they have been in the past. Across the Badger state and the nation, more people are tuned in to the reality that traditional public schools aren’t always putting the interests of kids first, and are looking for alternatives. The injustice of a system that forces kids into these schools has been made clear to them. School finance reform must be part of the response to this new era. As education reformers, we must seize this moment rather than let it pass us by in hope of an easier path in the future.