Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Cheap Schools Solution

Wisconsin’s spending on education has dropped drastically. Long-term, that could be a big problem.

By - Jul 8th, 2014 10:54 am
Choice schools have some of the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation. Photo by Nickolas Nikolic.

Choice schools have some of the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation. Photo by Nickolas Nikolic.

Largely due to the aggressive leadership of former state teachers’ union leader Morris Andrews, Wisconsin was once among the top-spending states on public education. By the late 1980s, as reported in a story on Andrews I did for Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin spent 47 percent more than the average state in per-pupil expenditures. Teachers in Wisconsin were among the top 10 states when it came to average salaries.

Though Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson was married to a school teacher, he did everything he could to drive that spending down. Thompson targeted teachers’ compensation and demonized their union. He succeeded in passing revenue caps that limited how much school districts could increase spending. He also got a measure passed that allowed school districts to evade an arbitrator’s ruling if the district offered at least a 3.8 percent increase in the total value of salaries and benefits, at a time when inflation averaged 3 percent annually.

Thompson’s approach ended the days of big contract gains for teachers. By 2007-08, Wisconsin had dropped to nearly the median in school spending, with per-pupil expenditures of $10,791, just 4.7 percent higher than the national average of $10,297. As for salaries, Wisconsin’s teachers ranked 23rd nationally, at 93 percent of the average pay nationally.

This was a stunning transformation and Thompson’s most overlooked impact as a governor. He also championed school choice, which began to drive down per pupil spending even further by providing an absurdly low voucher payment. In the most recent school year, a choice school received just $6,400 per student. That’s less than any state but Utah spent per pupil, according to a ranking done by Governing Magazine, and that was based on 2011 data. Odds are Utah passed that spending level in the last three years.

Wisconsin continued to expand school choice, creating what you could call the second biggest school district in the state, the 21,000 or so voucher students in Milwaukee. They are low income and predominantly minority students, which research shows are typically the toughest to teach, yet the per-pupil spending devoted to them is less than half of what is spent in well-to-do districts like Nicolet or Elmbrook.

As a 2011 Milwaukee Magazine feature story by John Rondy found, these choice schools have trouble staying in operation without doing constant fundraisers to get additional dollars. The reality is that $6,400 per pupil isn’t enough. You may find a few good teachers willing to work for low wages because they believe in the mission, but those will be the exception. Funding this scanty will doom schools to constant turnover of staff and an unending scramble to raise more money.

But Republicans are convinced you can run schools on the cheap. Gov. Scott Walker’s watershed law, Act 10, largely eliminated collective bargaining rights, which has further driven down salaries and benefits for teachers. Meanwhile he has cut general aid to school districts from $4.6 billion in 2010, the last year under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, to $4.35 billion in 2014-2015.

For many years, Democrats who opposed school choice also opposed increasing the per-pupil voucher figure. But Republicans have complete control now and they have modestly upped the voucher amount, to $7,210 for students through grade 8 and $7,856 for high school students. This will still leave choice schools with some of the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation, even as they deal with the students who are hardest to educate.

Meanwhile, Republicans have expanded choice, meaning even more schools will be under-funded. They have also opened the doors to more voucher payments for private school students, 75 percent of whom were already attending private schools. In short, this money will simply go to families who were already paying for an education. Inevitably, it will mean less money in the already shrinking pot of money for public schools statewide.

Republican school choice supporters originally argued it would result in a better education for students than Milwaukee Public Schools. That was the entire rationale for that then-radical change. But as more and more research showed voucher students do about the same or worse, on average, than MPS students, Republicans began switching to arguing that choice schools were cheaper.

But those Democrats who supported school choice, including African American leaders (like Annette Polly Williams) who had given up on MPS, would have never supported vouchers if the change was only being made to save money. If the goal is to improve education, then choice advocates should be greatly concerned that this is not happening.

I don’t know where every Wisconsin legislator is sending his/her children for school, but I doubt many are choosing schools where the per-pupil spending is below that of nearly every state in the union. Yet the policies and messaging of Republicans is telling us over and over that you can run schools on the cheap.

Meanwhile, it may take years for the impact of the cheap schools movement to be felt. Children attend school for 13 years or more and it can take awhile for the impact of lower spending to be felt on the quality of teachers attracted and the achievement of students. The general wisdom when it comes to other services and products that we buy is that “you get what you pay for.” Why would education be the exception?

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

26 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Cheap Schools Solution”

  1. Michael says:

    The choice school I am familiar with was K-8 with 30+ voucher kids in each class but had no extra curricular classes except 30 min of computer time. The only classroom book sets they had if any were hand me downs from MPS but more often than not there were no complete sets. There was constant teacher turnover, low salaries and never any raises for those who stayed. Paid holidays were taken away (essentially a pay cut) and all support staff were fired halfway through the year shortly after re-accreditation. Needless to say, test scores were not good.

    Was it due to the very low funding levels for voucher kids? Corruption? Incompetence? I don’t know since the books are private and there is no accountability to the state. A lot of teachers are leaving the school but I’m sure they will find new ones and continue to run the school and the cycle of turnover continues. Meanwhile the kids suffer. Why do parents keep sending their kids there? Good question.

    You correctly identified the problem with the ‘free market solution’ to schools: “Meanwhile, it may take years for the impact of the cheap schools movement to be felt.” The damage is a long term problem but the payoff for shorting kids is great. I believe in school choice (bureaucracy in large school districts can stifle innovation and not one education style fits all) but I think all schools need to be held accountable and have their finances audited if they get public money.

  2. PMD says:

    “Meanwhile the kids suffer. Why do parents keep sending their kids there? Good question.”

    To get a religious education, complete with creationism in science class? Isn’t that what a lot of the voucher program is about, sending kids to religious schools?

  3. Hank says:

    The business model for many choice schools is to hire young, new teachers for cheap, burn them out and repeat. The Obama administration is looking to enforce NCLB regulations that communities make an effort to put quality experienced teachers in front of our neediest students, because research shows over and over again theses are the professionals that have the greatest positive impact with poor disadvantaged students. Wisconsin’s education policies seem designed to dismantle urban public education leaving only choice and charters schools standing. Once that happens it is safe to assume choice schools will demand much higher per pupil allocations. Remember how Walmart grew, undercut the completion, drive them out and raise the profit margin regardless of quality.

  4. PMD says:

    Ah yes the old “run schools like businesses” argument. In my experience the people making that claim are 50+ and haven’t set foot in a school since they were in 12th grade.

  5. Andy says:

    The way I see it right now, Voucher’s give students and parents the hope of attending a school that will be more successful for their child than MPS. There are good and bad choice schools, just like there are (very few) good and (many) bad schools in MPS. To be frank, the fact that you’re getting similar results from schools that get nearly half the funding MPS schools get is very telling.

    I’m all for school choice and I can’t believe anyone who actually cares about Milwaukee would be against it as long as MPS refuses to make any meaningful changes. Further, why would some people be so supportive of financial assistance to low income families in some ways, yet be so opposed to them when it comes to schools? Even if low income families already send their children to private schools, they are probably sacrificing a lot to get them there. This assistance will help those families survive just like all our other financial assistance programs do… right?

    I think it’s important to note that voucher schools educate children for nearly half the cost while getting similar results… but the more important discussion should be around how we regulate and hold all schools accountable for their performance.

  6. PMD says:

    I don’t know, I think people are pretty justified when they object to their tax dollars being used to pay for kids to attend religious schools that teach creationism. Or to pay for kids whose families can already afford to send them to private schools.

  7. Andy says:

    Wow PMD, your point of view blows my mind. You are a supporter of giving the same people free money through the EITC that can be spent on absolutely anything including big screen tv’s or new 20″ rims but you’re against giving them money specifically for the purpose of giving their children a chance at a better education?

    Also, your hangup with this idea that children aren’t being taught evolution really confounds me. Not only is that such a tiny portion of overall education, I think you would be hard pressed to actually find schools who don’t teach evolution. The fact that you would rather kids go to schools where they are doomed to fail just to keep them out of a school funded by a religious organization says a lot about your priorities.

  8. PMD says:

    Wow going a little overboard with the rhetoric Andy. And immediately go to stereotypes of poor people buying 100′ TVs with your tax dollars and claim that I want kids to go to failing schools. Of course that isn’t the case. Maybe take it easy on wild accusations and putting words in my mouth.

    Plenty of schools are teaching creationism in the area.

  9. Eric Jernberg says:

    If you want to learn about Jesus, do it on your own dime

  10. Andy says:

    It is not rhetoric if it is true. You would rather kids be forced to go to MPS, which is almost completely made up of failing schools, than go to a voucher school because 15 of the 110 voucher schools include some sort of creationism or intelligent design alongside evolution.

    I am just disappointed that some people’s fear of religion is stronger than their desire to see underprivileged children succeed.

    I see plenty of my tax money going towards things I do not support. Can we make a trade where only my tax money goes for voucher schools and your tax money goes towards the things I dislike?

  11. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    What a bunch of lies and crap. Walker had to cut slightly cause your buddy Doyle left big mess, 3.6 billion dollar shortfall in budget. He did get the schools the ability to get it back by Act 10. It worked. There are more teachers now than in the last year of Doyle. Doyle cut 250 billion from UW and was not helpful to schools. Scores, achievement went down during Doyle/Burke reign. MPS got worse. Doyle did nothing for schools.
    Tommy increased funding to 2/3 of cost from state. Doyle dumped that right away. Spending on education from 1970 had been tripled way more than inflation. Teachers salaries are way up. Too many ancillary staff added sucking up teacher money.
    Roesslein told me about you inability to be accurate. Walker saved schools by Act 10. If you look at the Doyle/Burke record on jobs and income you will see a downward trend from years one till it was negative. That reduces income for state from taxes.
    Tommy was endorsed by WEAC when he raised spending to 2/3. Spending however has little effect on education after you reach a certain point. NJ spends way more than Wis. but has worse results. Same every where.
    Murphy this is the most baloney that you have spread in years
    Bob Dohnal, Publisher
    Wisconsin Conservative Digest

  12. PMD says:

    Here we go again. I want underprivileged children to succeed Andy. I am a former MPS teacher (Multiplex North Division from 2004-2006). I do not believe the best way to do that is to create a separate school system that claims to be about giving poor kids access to better schools but in reality gives vouchers to kids so that they can attend religious schools, or gives vouchers to kids whose parents are already paying for them to attend private schools. The way you pro-school choice people claim those who don’t support vouchers are somehow anti-poor kid, it’s pathetic and tiresome, and in no way true.

  13. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Silliest bunch of arguments I have heard in years. Nothing to do with evolution/creationism, that takes up 25 minutes a year. The measure is reading, math and it has not improved in last 30 years. Gotten worse but a lot more money has been spent. As for money??? I went to Catholic schools, they did not spend hardly a dime. I think that the nuns got $50 month plus room and board. They were best teachers we had. I moved to public schools and we were way ahead of them.. Across the country kids of all races, sexes etc. are being taught to read, not at MPS Worst schools in country. Watch: “Waiting for Superman” and check the world efforts. Wisconsin has lost its great education cause of more federal involvement and the Unions making the rules. Tenure sucks. Glad judges and parents are realizing it.
    My kids went to public and private schools. They excelled cause my wife is teacher and made sure that they did. We had some nutty people, all Republicans on Tosa school board and we dumped them all. Education improved. Takes leadership, not lots of money.

  14. Bruce Murphy says:

    To Bob Dohnal, I believe you have an interpretative disagreement with me. As for the charge that I’m peddling lies and crap, that’s beneath you. Point out a specific fact I’ve reported that’s untrue and I’ll correct it. Meanwhile, where’s the old Dohnal sense of humor?

  15. East Slider says:

    Of course, all of the usual stuff here, it just can’t be done! We need massive sums to educate kids today and there’s no other options, we’re the the teachers union, we know it all, you know nothing and there’s no room for any discussion here and if you disagree with us, you must be racist, evil, stupid, contemptuous of poor people or most likely, all of the above! Oh yeah, we don’t have any bias, hidden agenda, self-serving motivations, none of that here!

    The voucher program hasn’t been perfect by any means, I still don’t know why in the world it ever allowed these goofy little “schools” to pop up out of nowhere, with little oversight and many times crash and burn, taking their students education down with them, but many, many more kids have benefited incredibly from this program! Some moves have been made to fix things, but more are needed and we need to keep on them about that, but I also bet that many of the obvious problems with choice schools are maneuvers made only to be politically correct. If the only really qualified schools at the beginning of choice were all church run schools, there would’ve been the predictable liberal outrage at that, which is still here even though schools like St Marcus are blowing away many MPS schools. By allowing some of these goofy little disasters like Alex’s Academy of Excellence, they muted the libs somewhat and got it going but it could’ve been so much better! We can still make it better and have something great, or we can just submit to the teachers union and go back to the awful setup they had before and for years showed nothing as far as improvement!

    I’d also LOVE to see some TRUE AND UNBIASED data as far as exactly how much of this overall funding actually ended up educating kids and how much went elsewhere in the massive black hole that is our public schools and especially MPS, which has all sorts of staff unrelated to educating kids falling all over each other!

  16. PMD says:

    I attended a Catholic school from K-8. Once a student took the teacher’s edition Algebra book from our nun teacher, and she literally could not teach. My math and science teachers were abysmal. I went to a public high school and they were way ahead of us. Not even close. So anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove much. And kids in voucher schools are not doing any better in math or reading. Why is that? How did education improve after dumping nutty school board members?

  17. East Slider says:

    One more thought here, even though I was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic grade school, I am NOT a practicing Catholic or any other religion, I haven’t seen the inside of a church in years and I do have some reservations about any government funds going to religious schools, but life is not all absolutes and many times we have to weigh the options. I want every kid here, no matter how poor their family is or how messed up their family structure is, to have a good education available to them! We watched helplessly for many years as the “public school industrial complex” gave at best substandard and often awful educations to these kids who need every advantage they can get! Choice schools give an immediate solution to that problem that perplexed the union crowd for decades! Sure, they’ll tell us that if we just kept spending and spending and spending, they’d have it all fixed by now. Yeah right! You lost your chance and you had far too long in the first place, we’re talking about people’s lives here. Maybe instead continuing to fight it, how about actually contributing! Don’t bother telling how much you know about educating kids, you already had many chances to prove just how good you were and blew them all badly! You have NO credibility left!

  18. PMD says:

    What if the “immediate solution” isn’t having more success than public schools? Or what if they are faring even worse? And when you demonize public schools, are you focusing on MPS or all public schools in the state? And yes the person using exclamation points at the end of every sentence is a beacon of credibility.

  19. Andy says:

    Come on PMD, I don’t actually think you want underprivileged Children to fail… but per your own words, you would rather them go to MPS (which is failing and has been failing for a long time) than to have any tax payer money go to schools funded or run by a religious organization. Correct me if I’m wrong on that.

    If true, in my book that shows me you’re anti-religion more than you are pro-education. East Slider explained it well… these are the people who are best positioned to make an immediate positive impact. That is what is most important to me.

  20. Alison says:

    To Mr. Murphy-

    In my humble opinion, this blog has devolved into nothing but a bi-weekly hit job on Governor Walker. If you want to know why politics is no divisive and turns people off, you can blame both sides. But your blog doesn’t add much of anything lately. This Act 10 stuff was all discussed during the Recall. Walker won by more than his first Governor’s race. Move on to something new.

    For example:
    Why would Mary Burke be a better governor? Educate your readers. Offer something for your side instead of incessant negativity about the other side.

    Also, just a factual note. Collective bargaining is not a right, no such thing exists. You should correct that, paragraph 7.

    Bottom line: Parents should have the chance to get their kids out of MPS if they want to. It is their family, and they should be able to what is best for their family, not what Bruce Murphy says is best for someone else’s family.

    Thanks. Try to brighten up the blog a bit with some nicer stories, not just ripping on Republicans with half truths all the time.

  21. PMD says:

    Are those my only two choices?

  22. Nicholas says:


    Parents in MKE have a choice to send their kids to MPS Charters, UWM charters or charters authorized by the City of MKE< OR to suburban public schools.

    It is a fact, that the vast majority of these voucher "schools" are get rich quick schemes.

  23. Justin says:

    Recently it has been pointed out in several articles that Wisconsin is second only to Alabama in cutting state aid to public schools since 2008. ($1100 + in cuts per pupil) At the same time, state aid to unaccountable private and voucher schools has increased substantially as Governor Walker and state Republicans work to destroy public education in Wisconsin.

    The long term effects of these policies on Wisconsin will be significant. The number of Wisconsin STEM teachers fleeing the state is rising each year. Enrollments in schools of education are down by 33-60% in colleges across Wisconsin. Nationally, Wisconsin is becoming known as the “worst place to teach in America”. Soon, Wisconsin will also become known as the “worst place to send your child to school” in the Midwest.

    Scott Walkers and his Republican legislative majority have destroyed Wisconsin’s reputation for quality public schools. Thirty years of being #1 or #2 in the nation in ACT scores will be a historical footnote after the dramatic escalation of the
    “War on Teachers” started by Governor Tommy Thompson. With a near universal animosity towards teachers across Wisconsin, even genuine hatred for teachers that is present in many Wisconsin communities, many good teachers are leaving Wisconsin for other states where teachers are still respected and compensated accordingly. Other teachers are leaving for different careers. Right now, there are over 2,000 full time teaching jobs posted on WECAN, an absolutely unprecedented number for early July. Many of these openings are for high school math, science, technical education, advanced placement, and special education positions vacated by teachers with 5-15 years of experience who have fled the hatred for teachers in Wisconsin for nearby Midwestern states where quality teachers are welcomed and appreciated.

  24. East Slider says:

    Andy is correct, many here are supposedly so bothered by government money going to a religious school that they’ll deny a kid who has it tough already a shot at a top notch education at St Marcus and instead send them to MPS, which does have a FEW good schools as well as many more bad schools. (I’ll avoid exclamation points, never mind the substance of what someone says if they use exclamation points, they must be a nut)

    It is such an obvious case of willfull blindness from libs here that it is hilarious, until you consider that these are real kids being hurt badly by the public school syndicate continuing to fight, after being partially deposed due to decades of awful performance. You all know damn well that schools like St Marcus, Messmer and many more are turning out incredible results year after year and yet you keep going back to the failures like Alex’s Academy of Excellence, which shouldn’t have been in the program in the first place. Changes have been made and are continuing to be made to eliminate these failures. Too bad we can’t just eliminate the monsterous failure of MPS too. As I said, I’d bet good money that Alex’s Academy of Excellence and the other failures that came out of nowhere and lukely were get rich quick schemes were only able to get in the program because they wanted to be politically correct and not have only religious schools. If liberals had been kept out of the planning, school choice would’ve been excellent from the start! (Sorry had to do it!)

    We could cut a lot more money from schools and still put out a much better product in the end, if we simultaneously kept eliminating all of the money going to non-educational purposes. Look at what YOUR beloved and SLEAZY teachers union was doing to nearly every district before act 10 with their little health insurance scam. They’d force the districts to buy ridiculously over priced benefits from their own insurance company! Once act 10 passed, we saw district after district after district announce the huge amounts they were saving instantly by dumping the teachers union scam insurance company, except for a few like MPS and Madison where the liberals on the board again closed their eyes and pretended it wasn’t happening. This is so obvious, denying it is beyond obscene.

  25. PMD says:

    Liberals and political correctness are to blame for people starting voucher schools as a get-rich-quick scheme? The things one learns in the comments section. East Slider for the win. Debate over.

  26. Mike Bark says:

    School choice is a fine concept, but I think it misses the point as to why some private schools do as well as they do, The real reason is the fact that people who attend these private schools have a vested interest in seeing their kids do well and the level of involvement by and large is something MPS rarely reaches. I was a work grant student at Marquette High School and my parents picked up half of the remaining tuition and I picked up the other half. You can bet we were all in with trying to do well because there was a big cost to it.

    So now we have all these choice schools out there, but are they really any better than MPS? I think thats questionable. Charlie Sykes spent a ton of time extolling the virtues of Messmer High School, but when push comes to shove he sent his two boys to Marquette despite the fact that Messmer would have been much more convenient.

    Ultimately, I guess we’ll see how much better these choice schools will be. I suspect they will be a little better because at least the parent is making a proactive decision to send their kids there, but see how many of the school choice true believers actually send their kids to these schools.

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