Will Flanders, Research Director
Yesterday, the Assembly Committee on Education held an informational hearing where the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) attempted to explain school financing in the state of Wisconsin. This was a critical hearing as it highlighted many of the difficulties that come with the current system, including how it significantly impedes major reforms. Below are three takeaways from the hearing:
1. The school finance structure is based on systems—not students. The testimony highlighted the archaic nature of school finance in the state in funding particular school districts and types rather than students themselves. School funding in Wisconsin is based on two student-count dates, and a three-year-rolling average of enrollment. The student count dates are in September and January. This means that funding is based on the number of students attending the school on those specific count dates. This means the current system continues to fund a student even if they no longer attend the school after the count date.
A three-year-rolling average requirement means that a student who leaves a school district today will still be partially funded by taxpayers for three years. Moreover, funding for our school choice and independent charter school students exists entirely outside of the system that funds public schools, even as more and more students take advantage of these programs.This archaic system fails to reflect the dynamic nature of modern education, where students regularly move between districts and sectors. Our system is essentially funding ghost students who are not actually attending the schools receiving the funding. Particularly in the aftermath of COVID-19, it is vital that education funding in Wisconsin be less tied to buildings, and more to where students live.
2. School finance continues to be used as a weapon by opponents. Among the questions to DPI by Representative Sondy Pope was this: “As we increase the number of voucher students, we’re increasing the [amount] of property tax that has to be levied by school districts?” To which the DPI representative answered in the affirmative, even saying that a student leaving for private school choice creates a “hole in your budget.” However, DPI is flat out wrong in their answer, as is Pope’s supposition in her question. When a student leaves for the choice program, the state reduces aid to that school district by the amount of the voucher. For a K-8 student, that is $8,300 and a high school student receives $8,946. However, state law allows districts to raise property taxes to make up for this difference. Contrary to what Pope claimed, districts do not have to raise their spending—they choose to. Because districts have the same amount of revenue for a kid they no longer educate when they choose to do this, they actually end up with more revenue for each remaining pupil.
This absurd system is analogous to one in which Walmart could still charge you for goods you decided to purchase at Target. And the blame should be placed on school districts who choose to do this rather than on families who are seeking out better alternatives. Representative Thiesfeldt highlighted this error to Pope, and DPI acknowledged that raising taxes was a choice. However, this misconception exists far beyond Sondy Pope, and needs to be continually refuted.
3. School finance in Wisconsin is outdated and needs reform. Among the highlights of the hearing was a question by Representative Ramthun in which he asked DPI whether student-based, backpack funding was possible under the current system. Both DPI and the LFB representative acknowledged that it was not.Student-based funding, where the money follows the kid regardless of where they choose to attend school, is doubtless the future that education reformers around the country are aiming for. But Ramthun’s question highlights that getting to that point will take substantial reform to a funding system that has remained largely unchanged for thirty years. Reform to this system will take substantial political will, but it is well past time to take it on.