This summer across Wisconsin, superintendents, business leaders and accountants from our 421 public school districts developed draft budgets for school board approval. They used a wide variety of data, but at the top of the list was funding per student in each district.
If you read that sentence again, it might raise questions in your mind: “Each school district gets a different amount of dollars per student? Why?”
The answer is that school funding in Wisconsin is controlled by the government, with vastly different levels of funding between districts. It’s an approach that leaves thousands of students with far fewer resources than others.
In 1994, a “temporary five-year plan” in the state budget used the 1993 expenditure ceilings for district revenues. No one knew this was coming, and district spending was vastly different from state to state. Some were spending on construction, a new curriculum, student desks, or lockers. Others tightened their belts. Spending varied by over 250%, from a low of $4,117 per student in Waterford to a high of over $11,000 per student just 35 miles away in Nicolet (suburb of Milwaukee).
When these government mandates were imposed, voters in ridings on the losing side of the equation expressed their frustration. The Wisconsin Association of School Board’s August 1993 newsletter reported that “legislators have promised future changes to the school aid formula to ensure equity in school funding.”
But that plan never materialized, leaving us with a system of potential winners and losers.
These differences continued for 30 years to the unfair tax realities of today in all regions of Wisconsin:
• Mukwonago in suburban Milwaukee is capped at $10,000 per student while nearby Elmbrook receives $12,027 per student.
• Chippewa Falls, Sparta and Onalaska are capped at less than $10,355 per student while nearby Melrose-Mindoro receives $12,003 per student.
• Appleton, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac are limited to less than $10,251 per student, while nearby Green Lake receives $12,779 per student.
• Antigo and Green Bay are capped at $10,000 per student, while nearby Gresham receives $13,928 per student and Gibraltar in Door County receives $21,628 per student. Is it twice as expensive to educate a student in Sister Bay than in Green Bay?
• Beloit and Janesville are limited to less than $10,039 per student, while neighboring cities of Judah, Albany and Fontana receive over $12,000 per student.
• Superior and Ashland are limited to less than $10,102, while nearby Solon Springs receives $12,450 and South Shore more than $18,000 per student.
There are many more examples we could share, but you get the picture: government controls imposed in 1994 trickled down to school district budgets three decades later. This is a flagrant violation of Article X, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution, which states: “The Legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of District Schools, which shall be as almost uniform as far as possible(emphasis added).
To be clear, we are not asking any district to have its funding reduced. What we are asking is that if the Legislature provides new funds for education, those new funds go first to the districts that have been living on less for so long. These districts should be able to provide the same level of opportunity for their students as districts that have received significantly more per student for nearly 30 years.
The current school funding system in Wisconsin presents a wide variety of problems not just in poorly funded districts, but across our state. We hear a lot about creating competitive markets in education. Unfortunately, the current system creates tax winners and losers. How can poorly funded districts compete with their peers who get thousands of dollars more per student? These districts often lose students to open enrollment to better-funded neighboring districts, creating even more financial hardship for already underfunded districts.
Due to the current funding formula, low-income districts consistently struggle to provide the same levels of staff, programs, services, and extracurricular activities to their students as districts with access to higher per-student funding. raised. It should be clear that we all lose when thousands of students across the state are wronged in this outdated funding plan.
What can we do there?
For starters, the legislature should increase the minimum amount of per-student funding that school districts can raise. All districts need an increase in the cost of living each year, and low-income districts need even more than that, so they can fund the same kinds of student programs and opportunities as others. districts in the state are able to offer their students.
A recent memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Tax Office of the Legislative Assembly shows that tax revenue topped the agency’s already healthy January estimate by $1.6 billion. Our next state budget should use these revenues to tie funding to the specific needs of students. Districts across the state need additional funding for students with special needs, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners. Research has shown that these students can be successful, but they need extra support. It is time for us to have a financing system that takes these needs into account.
A representative from the state superintendent’s office assured us that the upcoming budget proposal will include funding specifically aimed at improving equity among districts.
If we truly want all students to succeed, we must tie funding to current student needs, not what a district spent 30 years ago. Now is the time to ask your legislators to support the education of all children in our state based on their needs and not based on where they go to school.
The Wisconsin Association for Equity in Funding is a group of low-income districts that collectively educate approximately 100,000 students and have been advocating for changes to the funding system for decades. John Gaier is president of the Wisconsin Association for Equity in Funding. Danny Pyeatt is the school board chair, Unified School District of Antigo, and Chad Trowbridge is the business manager for the Chippewa Falls Unified School District.