Why Schools Are Increasingly Unequal
Act 10 and era of school referendums causes bigger gap between haves and have nots.
State Superintendent Tony Evers woke up at 3 a.m. the morning after the election to check the results of school funding referendums in the state. The results were remarkable: 55 of 67 referendums had passed.
“I was amazed. More than 80 percent of the referendums were passed by voters concerned about government spending,” says Evers, noting the support for Donald Trump. “These same people turned around and said tax us for our schools.”
To Evers, it shows the support voters have for their local schools. But it also underlines a growing problem in the state. There is a yawning inequity between school districts as a result of strict school spending caps, which can only be overcome by local referendums and which are difficult to pass in poorer school districts. The situation is exacerbated by the impact of Act 10, which also handicaps poorer districts. Neither measure may have intended to create inequity, but that’s clearly what is happening.
As Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators have used the spending caps to hold down school spending and local property taxes, more and more school referendums are passing.
“Since the start of 2012, more than half of public school district (242) have passed referenda to exceed state imposed revenue controls,” according an analysis by the state Department of Public Instruction. “So far in 2016, 154 questions have been posed by 111 districts at a success rate of 79.22 percent.”
In last week’s election, “Voters in the Germantown School District… agreed to borrow $84 million for a new field house, performing arts center, swimming pool and other projects,” the Journal Sentinel reported.” And in Franklin Public Schools, voters approved $43.3 million for a new middle school.“
School referendums, in short, are increasingly becoming, not the exception, but a normal method of funding schools. Except in poorer rural and urban school districts like Milwaukee which have far less property tax wealth and little chance of passing such ballot provisions. “If we continue down this road, we’re still going to have 20 percent of districts not voting in favor and we’ll become a state of haves and have-nots,” says Evers.
Walker saluted the situation, saying Act 10 has freed up public school leaders to “put the best and the brightest in our classrooms.”
Greenfield human resources chief Mark Kapocius compared it to the Green Bay Packers putting together the most skilled players. “It’s (like I am) Ted Thompson, trying to put together a team of the best 248 professional educators I can,” he told the paper.
But as Evers notes, smaller market NFL teams get revenue sharing from the richer teams. “If this was like Major League Baseball, the wealthy districts would have to pay a penalty tax to the smaller districts.”
Actually there is a penalty tax of sorts. The state’s school funding formula factors in a school district’s property tax base, awarding proportionately more money to property poor districts. But the formula began to get watered down in the 1990s, leading to ever greater spending differences between districts.
DPI figures show that the average revenue available per student is $13,031 per student statewide, but varies widely per district, from $10,883 in Milton to $26,477 in North Lakeland. That massive difference helps explain why some districts can’t afford to get in bidding wars for teachers.
“If you are a higher-paying district, the good teachers will flock to you,” Louise Blankenheim, district administrator in Kiel, told the newspaper. But in Kiel, voters have rejected school funding referendums eight of nine times since 2008, and the district is in no position to compete with better funded districts.
School districts most commonly give raises of $1,000 to $5,000 to lure teachers they want, but in some cases pay up to $20,000, the story found.
But Milwaukee Public Schools and other poorer districts can’t afford to pay even the smaller raises.
To discourage defections by teachers, districts have added breach-of-contract penalties that go as high as $2,000-$3,000. “But teachers rarely end up paying them — the district that hires the teacher typically pays the losing district as part of the deal,“ JS reporter David Umhoefer explained.
Ultimately, of course, the taxpayers pay for these penalties. “As a taxpayer, it doesn’t make sense,” Rick Penniston, former principal at East Troy High School, complained to the paper.
Wisconsin’s constitution includes language that essentially requires a system an equal education for all: “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable.”
But when North Lakeland has two-and-a-half times more to spend on its schools than Milton, it’s clear that Wisconsin’s schools are nowhere near as uniform as practicable. That might lead to court cases challenging the current system.
Wisconsin had once been an above average state both in average spending on education and in equity between districts. Those days are long gone. By 2012-’13 Wisconsin ranked 31st in per-pupil spending.
But that statewide average hides the differences between the haves and have-nots. This map created by National Public Radio gives some sense of how the spending can vary. In the decade prior to Act 10, the gap between rich and poor districts grew by 44 percent nationally and Wisconsin was by then among 16 states where poor districts get less funding per pupil.
Since then the gap has grown as a result of referendums, but national comparison figures are not yet available.
A recent study found students in the wealthiest school districts in Wisconsin and elsewhere are four grade levels above students in the poorest school districts. Much of that is because low-income students perform more poorly than well-to-do students. But some of the difference is because these districts are less able to afford good teachers, facilities and educational programs. As with the small market pro teams, these schools are far more likely to be losers.