Look for the debate over funding K-12 and special education to heat up again as the new state budget discussions begin early next year.
Tom McCarthy is the Communications Officer from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. He says recent budgets have focused more on property tax relief and less on actually paying for classroom expenses. McCarthy says that is in part because of a flawed school aid formula mechanism that doesn’t work well anymore.
Wisconsin limits school spending by revenue caps, but McCarthy says those revenue limits and the circumstances of the districts are changing. “Schools are spending money, but they’re not actually allowed to spend it because the revenue limit isn’t increasing, but their aid levels are, so that essentially is providing property tax relief which we think is great, but we’d like to make sure that some of that money can actually be spent in the classrooms as well.”
McCarthy says it’s good to create property tax relief, but that doesn’t solve the problem of how schools continue to pay for classroom operations. “If you don’t increase revenue limits and you give aid, you’re effectively just buying down the property tax portion of your local schools. Like I said, that’s a great thing to do and it’s part of what Superintendent (Tony) Evers has incorporated into his plan, but if you don’t do them in conjunction with each other, then you only get one. You’re not allowing the increasing costs that are usually happening in classrooms across our state to be accounted for.”
He says districts have changed since the ‘90’s when the funding formulas were last modified, and that has created financial trouble for several districts. “Some of those particular changes, they have not been allowed to reflect in the funding formula, so you actually have districts now that are outside of the funding formula and get no traditional aid dollars from the state, and that’s based on kind of a perfect storm of scenarios that Fair Funding kind of looks at and says alright, here are the different things that have caused that to happen and we’re going to get our hands dirty and actually fix them.”
Another area McCarthy and Superintendent Tony Evers is concerned about is northern Wisconsin districts that have high property values and lower family incomes. “You have districts in the north that have a lot of property wealth due to vacation homes or, you know, we generally call it The Lake Effect where, yeah, that is a vacation home that’s adding to that, but the people that actually live there and send their kids to school might not reflect that general level of wealth that is generally shown in the property values.”
Special Education funding has seen a “great slip” in the amount of funding available from the state to local schools. McCarthy says in the 90’s and before, these labor and material intensive programs received more state aid dollars to run them. “In the 90’s and even before that, rates that were around 70%, and you fast forward to now to 2015, we’re going in at a reimbursement rate of around 28%, so what happens with that is those students under federal law and state law are required to receive an equitable and fair education, so you have this shifting of sands in these local districts to pay for certain things, and sometimes that pits students with disabilities against regular ed students.”
Superintendent Evers has proposed his Fair Funding proposal before, and he’s again offering it and additional ideas to the Governor and the Legislature, hoping they incorporate at least some of his ideas in the new state budget. So far, the Executive and Legislative branches have not discussed specifics of the next budget.