Worth Reading

Bernard Zakheim WPA Mural

Bernard Zakheim WPA Mural (click for more information)

The School Finance Network (SFN) and the Madison Board of Education released reactions to the education provisions of the recent state budget today. Both are worth reading.

The SFN release seeks “Truth in Budgeting” by presenting some “not-so-well-known facts.” The first should be familiar to AMPS readers:

Not-so-well-known Fact #1: The ongoing difficulty of school boards and administrators in making ends meet is not the result of a lack of oversight or innovativeness. Quite the contrary is true. Most schools are in trouble due to 16 years of revenue controls that have curtailed their ability to adequately deal with basic costs, such as fuel, textbooks, technology and utilities.

After 16 years of state-imposed budgetary controls and stagnant or declining state support, boards and administrators have had to make significant budget cuts. School boards are now in the position of having to eliminate critical educational programs, lay off more staff, and further defer necessary school maintenance projects in order to balance their books. These cuts will have long term negative consequences for our schools and our students, and for the state as a whole.

#2 delineates the combined effects of the 3.1% cut in state aid and the reduction in revenue cap growth.

The last three bring to light a little understood aspect of school finance in Wisconsin: The designation of state funding for property tax relief as school funding. I’m going to quote these in full:

Not-so-well known Fact #3: While most Wisconsinites take great pride in our state’s schools, in the last 15 years Wisconsin’s national rank for per-pupil expenditures has declined from 11th to 19th. This is partly because $800 million dollars that is distributed as state tax credits is categorized as spending for education, but it isn’t actually spent on education. So, while many think the state is picking up two-thirds of the costs of our schools, the level of state support has steadily declined, and today our schools actually receive only a little more than one-half of their support from the state. As a result,greater responsibility for funding our schools is being shouldered by local property taxpayers.

No-so-well-known Fact #4: If $900 million in property tax relief credits included as spending for public education were actually allotted to Wisconsin’s 864,000 school children, per-pupil expenditures would be $1,040 more than they are today, and the state would be ranked 12th nationally in per-pupil expenditures, rather than 19th.

Not-so-well-known Fact #5: To make matters worse, the most recently passed state budget added monies to a “poverty aid program” for schools, but schools do not get an additional dime from this, since the program is actually a tax relief program for residents in districts with low-income students.

More on the levy credits from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau here.

The Madison release is a letter to legislators, seeking understanding and aid for the situation the Madison Metropolitan School District must address due to the recent state budget. Here is their summation:

We are hard-pressed to find the silver-lining of the dark cloud of a budget that presents itself. A cut in the allowable revenue limit increase from $275 per pupil to $200 is a loss of nearly $2 million in resources for Madison classrooms. Additionally, the district will lose nearly $1 million in categorical aid.

More problematic is the $9.23 million loss in general school aids – a cut of over 15% when compared to 2008-09. A loss of this magnitude only re-emphasizes our call for comprehensive reform of school funding in Wisconsin.

The district has cut over $60 million in programs and services for students since the inception of state-imposed revenue limits. While we continue to examine all aspects of our local budget for efficiencies and improvements, the loss of nearly $12 million in resources from the state can not be made up by improving bus routes.

Our options are to eviscerate programs, eliminate more opportunities for students and untenably large classes, or use the local property tax levy to fill the gaping hole left by the state. Regardless of what we choose to do, in the final analysis, more cuts must be made.

Digging further into the details of the Madison situation reveals that the biggest problem under the current system is that Madison is a high spending, high property wealth district at a time when state investments in education are falling further behind costs. Because of this combination, the current system and funding levels hit Madison hard.

I believe in the concept of equalization, but the concept must start with a commitment by the state to provide a foundation of adequate resources for all districts and schools (not necessarily a “foundation plan,” but the equivalent in support; Wisconsin’s system has been called a “backwards foundation plan“).

Both the timing and the size of the adjustments Madison must make are difficult, to say the least.

SFN and the Madison Board close with calls for a comprehensive fix.


Throughout the state, there is a growing sense that something needs to be done to fix Wisconsin’s broken school funding system. We could start by getting the facts straight on school spending, including how much of that spending is supported by the state.

In these difficult economic times, it is more important than ever that our students receive a quality education, one that prepares them for their future jobs, and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. The failure to provide our children with a quality education threatens not only their future, but the future well-being and prosperity of our entire state.

MMSD Board of Education:

Two years ago, every member of our delegation (and nearly every Democrat in the Legislature) supported Assembly Joint Resolution 35, which called for changes to the state funding formula by July 1, 2009. While the deadline has passed, the goals of AJR 35 remain laudable. We stand ready to work with you and other members of the education community to move our state’s K-
12 system forward.

As I said earlier this week, “time to get to work.”

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, School Finance, Take Action

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