Spending, Not Performance, High at MPS

U.S. Census Shows that Milwaukee Public Schools Has the 4th Highest Per-Pupil Spending Amongst Country’s 50 Largest Cities
by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The U.S. Census drew headlines in Wisconsin today when it reported that Milwaukee ranked fourth in the country when it came to per-pupil spending. Despite this high ranking, the city’s students have traditionally underperformed on measurements like The Nation’s Report Card.

Milwaukee had the fourth-highest per-pupil funding number amongst America’s 50 largest cities in 2010, according to Census data. That year, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) allocated $14,038 per child towards education. That lagged behind only New York City ($19,597), Washington, D.C. ($15,582), and Baltimore ($14,711) at the top of the list.

While the city sits at the top of the list in funding, MPS has not been able to replicate those results when it comes to educational growth. The city is one of 18 included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) large urban district results. These examinations, also known as The Nation’s Report Card, have consistently ranked Milwaukee amongst the worst big city school districts in the country. MPS lagged significantly behind the national urban average in reading and math in both 2009 and 2011.

Those figures seem to suggest that spending alone may not have a measureable effect on educational achievement. Other urban districts like Miami-Dade and Philadelphia have had stronger performances despite less funding over that same period.

Part of the problem with Milwaukee’s high costs can be traced back to teacher benefits. MPS provides its teachers with one of the most expensive benefit packages in the state. It includes access not only to the state pension, but also a second pension backed by the City of Milwaukee. As a result, average teacher compensation in the city has climbed over $100,000 for the past three school years. It will be over $106,000 for 2012-2013.

In 2010, the year that this census data was collected, the average MPS teacher salary was $56,095 according to the Department of Public Instruction. The average total compensation that year was $100,050, leaving $43,955 in benefits. Those benefits made up 43.9 percent of the district’s total cost to employ an educator.

This is considerably higher than the national rate as reported by Dr. Jason Richwine and Dr. Andrew Biggs’s 2011 report, Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers. The authors showed that average teacher benefits across the country made up 41 percent of their wages and 29 percent of their total compensation. That 29 percent figure is nearly 15 percentage points lower than the Milwaukee average.

These high per-pupil costs were also curious for a city that educated over 35,000 of its students through voucher and charter schools. These schools receive less funding than regular public schools and would stand to skew the city’s average downward as a whole. Charter schools receive just $7,775 in state funding, while voucher schools receive only $6,442. It is possible that costs associated with intra-district and three-choice transfers could mitigate some of these savings.

Wisconsinites had long known that Milwaukee’s public schools had some of the highest per-pupil spending in the state, but few would have predicted that it was one of the highest in the country. MPS boasts one of the biggest spending rates amongst America’s big cities but continually lags behind its counterparts in subjects like reading and math. It’s clear that throwing more money at the problem won’t make it go away. If Milwaukee wants to even strive to be an average large city when it comes to public education, legitimate and meaningful reforms will have to take place.