MacIver’s Analysis of Superintendent Evers’ School Funding Reform Plan

All children may be created equal – but they won’t be funded that way in Wisconsin Public Schools, according to State Superintendent Tony Evers’s latest budget plan. Evers is calling for increased school expenses to the tune of $420 million over the next two years – including statewide escalators for educating students from low-income families. Wisconsin’s “Fair Funding for Our Future” budget system is aiming to fix the state’s convoluted student funding mechanism – but without a complete overhaul, it looks more likely to increase the confusion.

Fair Funding for Our Future aims to increase educational financing mainly through shifting the School Levy Credit from the taxpayers to the classroom. This appropriation would put over $897 million into the general education fund and be used to bankroll many of the proposed increases in Evers’s plan as well as regular schooling expenditures. This includes seven million dollars in “hold harmless” provisions to make sure that districts that don’t directly benefit from the new plan have no risk of losing funding through 2012-2013.

While this wouldn’t raise property taxes directly, it would still make an impact in the pockets of citizens statewide through taking away their tax credit relief. Public schools in Wisconsin would be getting their funding increases – but that money has to come from somewhere. Despite the new plan’s creative accounting, these resources are still coming from their most common source – Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

There are a few key changes in the latest proposal from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) for the 2011-2013 school years. The biggest is a mandatory state funding baseline of $3,000 per student, which education leaders are hoping will be the first step in creating a more transparent financing formula for students. This minimum includes an additional 20 percent escalator – at least $600 and likely more – for any student within a district who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. This would ensure that areas with greater concentrations of low-income families receive more funding in their classrooms.

However, history shows that this isn’t a winning formula. While students from poorer family backgrounds present challenges in the classroom, greater financial support hasn’t led to better results in Wisconsin. Milwaukee has the highest concentration of free and reduced-price lunch students in the state, as well as one of the highest per-pupil expenditure figures, spending an average of $16,730 per child according to DPI data. Madison, a city with similar low-income population issues, spent $16,393 on each student in 2009.

Conversely, other areas dealing with diverse student populations have shown better returns on their educational investments with less expenditure. Wauwatosa and Green Bay have produced more positive results in the classroom despite spending less. The districts spent just $12,098 and $13,041, respectively, per student in 2009.

The chart above showcases per-student spending and some of the educational accomplishments of these districts for the 2008-2009 school year. Despite major funding disparities, Milwaukee and Madison fail to have significant advantages over their less-supported neighbors. In fact, even though they received at least $3,350 more per student in yearly expenditures, both districts posted lower reading scores than Green Bay and Wauwatosa. Greater funding for low-income students hasn’t had a significant impact in Wisconsin’s schools so far. It seems unlikely that piling more money onto the problem would solve much now.

Under the “Fair Funding for Our Future” plan, Milwaukee would add over $32 million to their funding in 2010-2011. Madison would add over $24 million – a 28 percent increase over their current aid projection. Wauwatosa and Green Bay would see raises of 1.2 and 1.7 percent to their finances – or approximately $2.2 million.

As a result, the new formula would increase spending in districts that already have bloated budgets and few positive results to show for it. While creating a base funding amount for students is a step in the right direction for clarifying the educational financing process, pouring additional support behind a system that hasn’t worked – and expecting a positive outcome – is not.

This approach seems to be a business-as-usual attempt to throw more money at a problem rather than thinking dynamically to create a solution. This is especially discouraging when you consider the examples of cost-effective education across the state that are providing low-income students with strong opportunities in the classroom. Indeed, several Milwaukee Parental Choice Program schools and charter schools across the state are getting more done for their students with less financial backing from the state. These institutions often get a fraction of the funding that their public counterparts do, yet still produce many shining examples of what a publically funded education should be in Wisconsin.

Evers suggests that his plan can fix the state’s educational funding formula, but in reality it fails to make the sweeping changes that would be necessary for transparency. While Evers’s plan reduces the amount of factors in determining a student’s financial value to a district, it also introduces new wrinkles to school-wide funding through competitive grants for districts with dropout problems and the aforementioned escalators for low-income pupils. While setting up a base funding amount, regardless of student, is a good start, there is still a long way to go before teachers, administrators, and parents alike can all understand where the finances that drive their schools are coming from.

Some of the concepts within Fair Funding for Our Future have merit, and the Superintendent has done a solid job of outlining his vision for public schools across the Badger State. However, several flaws are keeping this proposal from maximizing its impact and having the greatest possible effect on Wisconsin’s schoolchildren. In a time of both economic and educational strife, the onus for creative thinking across all forms of public instruction is necessary. Unfortunately, this latest proposal falls short, and the weight of that failure falls on schoolchildren across the state.

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst