Candidates Battle Over School Funding
GOP and Democratic legislative candidates offer dueling statistics. Who’s right?
You’ll get very tired of hearing this, as candidates for the Legislature ask for your vote: Democrats say aid to public K-12 schools has been cut. But Republicans say those same schools have been – and will continue to be – treated well.
It’s very confusing, since leaders of both parties selectively use numbers to help them – they hope – score political points. Hopefully, the following summary will help voters like you.
First, state Department of Public Instruction figures show an increase in total per-pupil revenue – from all sources of cash – over a five-year period: from $12,837 in 2009-10 to $13,039 in 2014-15. That’s an increase of 1.6 percent.
But Democrats cite the change over the last four – and not five – years. If you look at that change, $13,211 was spent per pupil in 2010 and $13,039 in 2014-15. That’s a 1.3 percent decrease.
What are legislative leaders saying?
“K-12 education is a top priority for Assembly Republicans and its reflected in the state budget,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says. Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators wrote that budget.
Funding for public K-12 schools will rise to $5.44 billion – a 3.8 percent one-year boost – in 2016-17, according to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
That makes school aids the most expensive single program paid for with general-fund taxes, Vos adds. Another way to say it: $1 out of every $3 collected in general-fund taxes this year is going to public schools.
But Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling and Democratic candidates refute Republicans with these numbers:
*If you consider only state aid to K-12 public schools, it went down over a four-year period – from $5.3 billion in 2010-11 to $5.2 billion in 2014-15. That’s a drop of 1.6 percent.
*During that same period, property taxes levied to pay for K-12 schools went up – from $4.69 billion to $4.75 billion. That’s an increase of 1.3 percent. Part of that trend is the widespread passage of local referendums to maintain buildings and classroom programs.
But Democrats say the biggest thing harming K-12 school aid now is the Choice program, which allows public school students to attend private schools with taxpayer-funded vouchers. When it was limited to Milwaukee in the 2010-11 school year, Choice cost a net of $80.6 million in state funds, according to LFB. This year, because Choice was expanded first to Racine and then statewide, and income limits changed to make more middle-class residents eligible, it will cost a net of $157.2 million.
That’s $157.2 million that could – and should – be going to K-12 public schools, Shilling and other Democrats say.
One more set of numbers Shilling uses: Since Republicans took control of the Capitol in 2011, per-pupil state aid for Choice students has gone up by $911, while per-pupil state aid for public school K-12 students has gone down by $70 per pupil.
That’s a “massive funding disparity,” Shilling charges. “Why should public school students be forced to sacrifice in order to subsidize their peers in private institutions?”
Any response, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald?
“While Choice participants make up 3.2% of total K-12 pupil enrollment, they only make up around 2% of the total state cost of K-12 education,” the Senate leader said in a statement. “Perhaps Democrats will keep these figures in mind the next time they want to attack the small percentage of Wisconsin families trying to provide a better educational opportunity for their children.”
Republican leaders also note that state aid for each Choice student averaged $7,353 in the last school year. That’s less than the $13,039 in average per-pupil spending reported by the Department of Public Instruction for that year.
And, if you’re head isn’t hurting already, one more set of numbers: U.S. Census Bureau figures say per-pupil spending in Wisconsin on basic instructional programs was $11,186. That was 1.6 percent higher than the national average that year.
Now, you know more about state school aids than that candidate who will soon be knocking on your door.