Dan O’Donnell takes a deep dive into K-12 education funding under Governor Walker and finds some surprising results
October 17, 2018
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
To hear Democrats tell it, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is so anti-education that all his state budgets will fund are one-room schoolhouses full of barefoot children huddled around a single burning ember for warmth.
So carefully crafted a narrative is this fiction that Walker was predictably met with howls of derisive laughter when he called himself an “education governor” this past summer.
This week, he quite literally put his money where his mouth is.
“We’re going to fund two-thirds of school costs in our next state budget,” the Governor told News/Talk 1130 WISN’s Jay Weber, “and that’s really because we’ve had good fiscal management, positive reforms, plus a strong economy.”
The howls of derisive laughter have subsided into squirming disbelief.
“The things we did to help the people of this state create more jobs, higher wages, and just better opportunities have allowed us in this last budget to make the largest actual-dollar investment in schools in our state’s history,” he added, reiterating that in his next budget “we will be able to restore the two-thirds commitment made famous by former Gov. Tommy Thompson.”
All in all, not a bad few budgets for those one-room schoolhouses; and a closer look at both school funding and student performance in Wisconsin reveals Walker’s governorship to have in fact created something of a golden era of education.
His most recent budget—which added $636 million in new funding on top of the staggering $10.5 billion in existing state money earmarked for education—was hailed as “an important step forward” and “a pro-kid budget”…by none other than State Superintendent Tony Evers.
Gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers is naturally singing a different tune (even going so far as to repeat the noxious lie that Walker has somehow stolen $1 billion from schoolchildren), but when Walker’s budget proposal was released in early 2017, Evers noted that it included the same priorities as his own budget request and that “overall, his definition of ‘significant’ [funding increases] and mine are really close.”
Those significant increases included proposals to more than double and then triple the $250 per-student average that schools received from the state—raising funding levels to $450 per pupil in the 2017-2018 schoolyear and to $654 per pupil in 2018-2019.
This is a far cry from the last biennial budget of his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Faced with massive budget deficits, he ended Thompson’s two-thirds funding tradition and cut education spending by $284 million (while simultaneously raising the tax burden on Wisconsinites by nearly $2 billion).
This cut in education funding didn’t look quite as bad, however, in light of a one-time influx of $717 million in federal stimulus money. When this is factored in, total education spending from the state and federal governments hit $5.26 billion in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Without it, education spending would have been $4.54 billion.
That, believe it or not, is significantly less than the $4.85 billion earmarked for education in the first fiscal year of Gov. Walker’s first budget. In the second year of that budget, education spending rose to $4.91 billion—roughly $400 million more than Gov. Doyle had spent if the one-time federal stimulus grant is removed.
While Doyle essentially got lucky that his education cuts were masked by a gift from the federal government, Walker took matters into Wisconsin’s own hands by recognizing that the single biggest drag on getting money from the state into the classroom was excessive spending on lavish teacher and school administrator benefits.
His 2011 budget repair bill was in that sense a remarkable bit of foresight. Walker knew—as any reasonable person should—that reliance on federal largesse to make up for wasteful state spending is no way to run a government, and through the bill now known as Act 10, he gave individual school districts the flexibility to better control their own budgets. Essentially, Act 10 was an acknowledgement that reliance on state largesse to make up for wasteful district spending is no way to run a school system.
In the eight years since Act 10 was signed into law, school districts have flourished. The Department of Administration estimates that this newfound budget flexibility has saved them a whopping $3.2 billion—an average of about $400 million per year.
That, incidentally, almost totally covers the initial cut of $426.5 million in state aid that Governor Walker was forced to make…a cut that Democrats are still hammering him for even though he has increased the amount of money the state spends on education in every succeeding year.
And despite Democrats’ ridiculous insistence that student performance would suffer if the state no longer shouldered nearly the entire burden of teachers’ insurance costs, statewide graduation rates have steadily risen, from 87 percent in 2011 to 88.6 percent last year.
Last year, incidentally, also saw the single largest state expenditure in education in Wisconsin’s history at $5.58 billion. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year it’s another record at $5.84 billion on top of the $400 million individual school districts can expect to save because of Walker’s Act 10 reforms.
By giving districts that financial flexibility and also pumping more state money into their coffers, while simultaneously holding the line on state taxes through what Walker calls the “prosperity dividend” of his restoration of fiscal sanity in Wisconsin, the state’s education budget is healthier than ever…and it no longer needs to rely on federal handouts.
Democrats will never admit it, of course, but it sure seems as though Scott Walker is funding a whole lot of one-room schoolhouses.