Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Politics May Doom School Funding Panel

Nearly everyone agrees system needs reform, but can’t agree how to do it.

By - Jan 8th, 2018 10:32 am
Kathleen Vinehout. Photo from State of Wisconsin.

Kathleen Vinehout. Photo from State of Wisconsin.

Members of the Legislature’s Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding may have drawn this year’s Mission Impossible assignment.

The 16-member commission is made up of six Republican and three Democratic legislators, plus Green Bay and Grantsburg school superintendents, two Catholic schools administrators, a UW-Madison professor and two other public school advocates.

Its charge: Wisconsin spends $10.9 billion a year on K-12 schools — 93 percent of which comes from state aid and property taxes. How should that system be changed?

“The school funding formula was first created in the 1970s and a review hasn’t been done in 20 years,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in announcing the commission.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald added: “With declining enrollments in more than half of the state’s school districts, a thorough analysis is necessary to ensure the process is transparent, equitable and delivers excellent schools.”

Commission cochairs are Senate Education Committee Chairman Luther Olsen, a 23-year veteran of the Legislature from Ripon, and Assembly Education Committee Vice-Chairman Joel Kitchens, of Sturgeon Bay.

Why would the Commission fail?

*Election-year politics. Republican Gov. Scott Walker is campaigning to win a third term in November, and there is no one who speaks for the governor on the Commission. If Walker is re-elected, he could ignore any Commission recommendations as he drafts his 2019-21 state budget early next year.

But one of 16 Democrats running for governor – Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma – is on the Commission. In a newsletter Vinehout wrote after its first meeting, she noted: “The impression that the Commission existed only as an election-year ‘talking point’ was clearly on the minds of some members.”

Vinehout wants a new system of paying for K-12 schools. “We need to move toward an ‘adequacy formula’ that takes into account fixed costs, recognizes that some students cost more to educate than others, and recognizes that school districts in different solutions face different costs,” Vinehout said. “Our children and our schools are our future…Tinkering around edges is not enough.”

Another school-finance veteran, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, is not a commission member, but is a Democratic candidate for Walker’s job. So, if Evers is elected governor, he also could ignore any recommendations from a Republican-led commission.

Asked about the commission last week, Evers said: “The biggest question I have is, how are we going to pay for our growing commitment to multiple school systems?” He was referring to the School Choice program, which used $249.6 million in tax dollars last year to pay for private-school tuition for 35,232 students. The number of Choice students more than doubled in 10 years.

Evers added: “Instead of debating what schools work better, our focus really should be on the worker shortage that is staring down Wisconsin’s economy.” The number of K-12 students – who are Wisconsin’s future workers – is lower than it was in 1995, he noted.

*Outdated, complex aid formulas. In a newsletter, the nonprofit Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WTA) noted the disparities that result from 1970s school-aid formulas that still base state aid on each district’s property values.

“In 2015, ‘property-rich’ Cedarburg had $725,000 per student in property value and received less than $3,000 per student… In general [state] aids,” WTA found. “By contrast, ‘property poor’ Beloit had only $163,000 of taxable property per student and received $8,540 per student… in general state aid.” As a result, WTA found, “Property taxes were 63% of Cedarburg’s total revenues, but only 15% of Beloit’s.”

*State limits on school spending. Governors and legislators since 1994 have limited school districts’ revenues, WTA added. “Thus, while lawmakers directly control state aids, the revenue limit law allows them to indirectly control local levies as well.” That’s another complication to any reforms the Commission suggests.

*Major changes in K-12 education. In the 2006-07 school year, 23,406 students used the Open Enrollment program that lets parents have their child attend a public school outside their home district. Ten years later, the number of Open Enrollment students statewide more than doubled – to 58,347 – which prompted the redistribution of more than $387.8 million in school aids. In an election year, will a Blue Ribbon Commission recommend ending – or changing – a program now used by one out of every 20 public school students?

A better bet would be the Brewers, who open spring training in five weeks, winning the World Series.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

5 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Politics May Doom School Funding Panel”

  1. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    In 1968 Pat Lucey ordered a poll to show which tax was best and which one to use for the state. Here were the results.
    Taxes they did not like:
    SalesTax 93%
    Property Taxes, 95%
    Income taxes 91%.
    And Pat said that he paid $5,000 for this.
    No good answer.
    But before we add taxes, we must ask fro improvements in the system. We have 12 districts that are wrecks, “National Disgraces according to “Arne Duncan”.
    Kids in those districts cannot read. If We put more money in it all goes into people pockets: bennies, salaries goodies.
    Since 1970 we have increased spending, on schools, tenfold for far fewer kids and results have gone down.
    Kids at MPS cannot read and we are losing them.

  2. Rita says:

    Pretty much all kids can read and type, thanks to smartphones, video games and the internet. So let’s get over the ‘kids in those districts cannot read’ hysteria. Now that THAT is out of the way, how are we going to fund and engage them in their education?

  3. Troll says:

    Only candidate that can beat Scott Walker.

  4. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Rita: Get over it, what a racist your are. The kids in the inner city are not being taught, so jerks like you just write them off. In 10th grade, at MPS, about 25% can read the newspaper.r.

  5. Rita says:

    Conservative – unfortunately reading ‘the newspaper’, by which I think you must mean the mainstream narratives we hear ad naseum, is not informing them, engaging them or addressing their most pressing concerns. Why would they read it? They will read what they want to read. All of us do.

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