Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Blue Ribbon Commission says Evers, not WisGOP, is on the right track for school funding

Hidden in the news during Tony Evers' Inauguration was the fact that the state's Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding gave their final report over the weekend. Wisconsin Public Radio took a look at the findings, and a central part of those findings is an admission that the Wisconsin GOP’s strategy of limiting property taxes over funding schools isn’t working.
One of the recommendations regards adjusting revenue limits, which would allow school districts to raise money through local property taxes. Lawmakers would be able to offset increases in local property tax through increases in state aid.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said revenue limits have been frozen since the 2014-15 school year, which has been challenging for districts.

"One of the big problems for school districts is revenue limits and a number of the key recommendations addressed revenue limits and the amount of money that schools have available to them to spend, particularly to meet the needs of special populations of students," said Rossmiller.
Those frozen revenue limits are why there have been so many school referenda in Wisconsin in recent years, because schools can't make it under these artificial ceilings.

And the type of district that has been especially damaged due to the Walker/WisGOP startegy of (de)funding education has been in areas of the state where the student (and adult) population is stagnant or in decline. The Blue Ribbon Commission had some ideas as to how to deal with this situation.
Under current law revenue limits for districts are calculated based on a three-year average of pupil enrollment. If a district’s enrollment in a given year is less than that average, it loses 100 percent of the funding for each student that leaves. The commission recommends using a five-year average instead or modifying the formula so that districts receive 90 percent of the funding for each student that leaves.

State Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, said the proposal would be a great help for districts in northern, central and western Wisconsin who have lost state aid through declining enrollment.
If you examine the Blue Ribbon Commission report further, you'll see a couple of items that would be significantly different from what WisGOP has been doing, starting with putting actually putting new school funding into the classroom.
General school aids and the school levy tax credit are two of the main methods of state support for school districts. A major objective of the general aid formula is tax base equalization. The formula operates under the principle of equal tax rate for equal per pupil expenditures. Districts with lower per pupil property values receive a larger share of their costs through the formula than districts with higher per pupil property values.

Recommendation: The Commission recommends that the Legislature provide future increases in state support through the general school aid formula rather than through school levy tax credit.
WisGOP used a lot of their added funding for schools to go into this school levy credit instead of sending them to the schools. By comparison, when now-Governor Tony Evers submitted his last budget request as Superintendent of Schools, he wanted the $1.09 billion we spend on the levy credit to go toward general school aids.

Trust the teacher on this one.

The Blue Ribbon Commission also follows along with Evers’ plan to increase Special Education aids. Currently, the state pays for less than 1/4 of special education costs in public schools, and the Commission gave a variety of funding levels, including Evers’ proposal of more than $600 million in addition money to Special Ed, in order to get the level of funding up to 60% from the current 24.5%.

The Commission's paper has another list of options as to how to add money for smaller, rural districts through the state's sparsity aid program. Currently, the program only applies to schools less than 745 pupils and with 10 pupils per square mile in the district. The Blue Ribbon Commission lists a variety of ways that
1. Create an additional tier of aid under which school districts could qualify for $100 per pupil if they meet the current density criteria and have an enrollment in the prior year of between 746 and 1,000 pupils. Provide an additional $3.4 million GPR annually to fully fund the proposal.

( A quick aside, I checked the 2017-18 aid and enrollment figures for school districts across Wisconsin, and the 750-1,000-member districts that seem likely to benefit from that tier of sparsity aid are places like Bonduel, Crivitz, Darlington, Fennimore, Grantsburg, Howards Grove, Markesan, Mishicot, Osseo-Fairchild, Phillips, Rosendale-Brandon, Stratford, Valders, Waterloo, and Wisconsin Heights.)

2. Use an approach similar to that recommended by the Rural Schools Task Force in 2013, under which districts with a membership of less than 1,000 and population density of less than 10 pupils per square mile would qualify for the current aid payment and districts with a membership of between 1,001 and 2,700 and a population density of less than seven pupils per square mile would qualify for a payment of $100 per pupil. Provide an additional $16.5 million GPR annually to fully fund the proposal.

3. Increase the enrollment limit to 1,500 pupils, and maintain the current law population density limit of 10 pupils per square mile and the current law payment of $400 per pupil for eligible districts. Provide an additional $27.9 million GPR annually to fully fund the proposal.

4. Eliminate the enrollment limit, but maintain the current law population density limit of 10 pupils per square mile and the current law payment of $400 per pupil for eligible districts. Provide an additional $40.2 million GPR annually to fully fund the proposal.
I don't see much relating to vouchers in my original glance at the Blue Ribbon report, but WPR looked at Evers' plans for that along with other budget issues. Evers admits that vouchers will not be reduced to $0 in his first budget, because it would leave many students that receive vouchers in a difficult situation. But Evers does plan to let people know how much vouchers affect people's property taxes and local public school funding, by putting a line item on people's bills next December.
"At some point in time as a state, we have to figure out whether we can afford two or three separate allocations of public schools," Evers said in an interview Wednesday. "People in Wisconsin don't know how much school districts are losing because of vouchers and how much is being deducted from their aid. They need to know that so that we can as a state have a good discussion about what's involved with the voucher program."

On the flip side, many of the WisGOPs in the Legislature got major donor help from Betsy DeVos, Scott Jensen and the voucher crowd, and few have advocated for throwing money into vouchers more than Assembly Speaker Robbin' Vos. So that's going to be a significant flashpoint in the upcoming State Budget, and it'll be interesting to see how hard Evers goes when it comes to limiting and exposing vouchers.

But the findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission allows Evers some ammunition for that battle, as it seems to back the methods and ideas that he has already proposed. And given that even Republicans were adding funding to public schools ahead of the 2018 election because they knew voters were tired of their schools being starved, it seems to be a good time to go big on reordering priorities in K-12 education, and reinvesting in this bedrock service for our communities.

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