Let's change Wisconsin's school funding system to make it more equitable for all districts

This summer across Wisconsin, superintendents, business managers and bookkeepers in our 421 public school districts crafted preliminary budgets for approval by school boards. They used a wide variety of data, but high on the list was the funding per student in each district.

If you read that sentence again, it might raise questions in your mind: “Each school district gets a different dollar amount per student? Why?”

The answer is that school funding in Wisconsin is government-controlled, with widely different funding levels between districts. It’s an approach that leaves thousands of students with many fewer resources than others.

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In 1994, a “temporary, five-year plan” in the state budget used 1993 spending limits to district revenues. No one knew it was coming, and district spending was widely different across the state. Some were spending on construction, new curriculum, student desks or lockers. Others were tightening their belts. Spending varied by over 250%, from a low of $4,117 per student in Waterford to a high of more than $11,000 per student just 35 miles away in Nicolet (suburban Milwaukee).

When these government mandates were imposed, voters in districts on the losing side of the equation expressed their frustrations. The August 1993 Wisconsin Association of School Board’s newsletter reported that “Legislators promised future modifications in the school aid formula to ensure equity in school funding.”

But that plan never materialized, leaving us with a system of potential winners and losers.

These differences have carried on for 30 years to today’s unfair fiscal realities in all regions of Wisconsin:

• Mukwonago in suburban Milwaukee is limited to $10,000 per student while nearby Elmbrook receives $12,027 per student.

• Chippewa Falls, Sparta and Onalaska are limited to less than $10,355 per student while nearby Melrose-Mindoro receives $12,003 per student.

• Appleton, Oshkosh, and Fond du Lac are limited to less than $10,251 per student, while nearby Green Lake receives $12,779 per student.

• Antigo and Green Bay are limited to $10,000 per student, while nearby Gresham receives $13,928 per student and Gibraltar in Door County receives a whopping $21,628 per student. Is it twice as expensive to educate a student in Sister Bay than in Green Bay?

• Beloit and Janesville are limited to less than $10,039 per student, while nearby Juda, Albany and Fontana receive more than $12,000 per student.

• Superior and Ashland are limited to less than $10,102, while nearby Solon Springs receives $12,450 and South Shore over $18,000 per student.

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There are many more examples we could share, but you get the picture: Government controls imposed in 1994 have carried into school district budgets three decades later. It’s a clear violation of the Wisconsin Constitution Article X, Section 3 which states, “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable” (emphasis added).

To be clear, we are not asking for any district to have their funding reduced. What we are asking is that if the Legislature provides new funding for education, those new funds go first to the districts that have been living with less for so long. These districts should be able to provide the same level of opportunities to their students as the districts that have received significantly more per student for almost 30 years.

The current school funding system in Wisconsin presents a wide variety of problems not only in poorly funded districts but across our entire state. We hear a lot about creating competitive markets in education. Sadly, the current system creates fiscal winners and losers. How can poorly funded districts compete with their peers who get thousands of dollars more per student? These districts often lose students to open enrollment to higher-funded neighboring districts, which creates even more of a financial hardship for the already underfunded districts.

Because of the current funding formula, low-revenue districts constantly struggle to provide the same levels of staffing, programs, services and co-curricular activities for their students as districts with access to higher per student funding. It should be clear that we all lose when thousands of students across the state get shortchanged in this outdated funding plan.

What can be done about it?

To start, the Legislature should raise the minimum amount of per pupil funding that school districts can raise. All districts need a cost of living increase every year, and low-revenue districts need even more than that, so that they can fund the same types of student programs and opportunities that other districts in the state are able to offer their students.

A recent memo from the Legislature’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows tax collections are above the agency’s already healthy January estimates by $1.6 billion. Our next state budget should use these revenues to tie funding to specific student needs. Districts across the state need additional funding for special needs students, economically disadvantaged students and English learners. Research has shown that these students can succeed, but they require additional support. It is time that we have a funding system that takes those needs into consideration.

A representative of the state superintendent’s office has assured us that the next budget proposal would include funding specifically aimed at improving equity between districts.

If we truly want all students to succeed, we need to tie funding to today’s student needs, and not to what a district spent 30 years ago. The time is now to ask your legislators to support the education of all children in our state by their needs and not by where they go to school.

The Wisconsin Association for Equity in Funding is a group of low-revenue districts that collectively educate about 100,000 students and has advocated for changes to the funding system for decades. John Gaier is the chair of The Wisconsin Association for Equity in Funding. Danny Pyeatt is the president of the school board, Unified School District of Antigo, and Chad Trowbridge is the business manager of the Chippewa Falls Unified School District.

Robert Meurer and Robert Unger chat in this December 1981 photo.
Robert Meurer and Robert Unger chat in this December 1981 photo.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Make Wisconsin's school funding system equitable for all districts