State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers gave his annual state of education speech Thursday and used it as a campaign speech. We know it was a campaign speech because: a) he issued an email fundraising appeal echoing the speech later in the day, b) it was followed by a fundraiser in Madison, and c) Evers totally contradicted what he said when Governor Scott Walker’s budget was announced, just like a politician.
Evers actually spent a bigger portion of his speech talking about transportation funding, 343 words, than he did about education spending, 325 words. Will Evers’ gubernatorial campaign be reimbursing the Department of Public Instruction for time and effort spent publicizing his speech?
In the speech, Evers complains that school funding in Wisconsin has fallen below the national average, and that “for too many budget cycles public school funding has not been the priority for those in control.”
A decade ago, Wisconsin spent nearly 40 percent of its general tax dollars on public schools. Today, it has fallen to 32 percent. Obviously, this is a question of priorities.
And for the first time in my memory, Wisconsin has fallen below the national average in how much we spend on our kids’ education. While other states have aggressively restored funding for public education after the Great Recession, we have remained stagnant. Wisconsin has a long way to go to catch up.
Let’s correct the record.
Todd Berry of the non-partisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance pointed out in a column in August the reason for the decline in school spending compared to other states is not because education spending isn’t a priority. It’s because, thanks to Act 10 which Evers opposed, Wisconsin has been successful in bring teacher benefit costs under control.
Salaries and benefits typically account for more than 80% of K-12 budgets. As recently as 2011, Wisconsin spent 52% more per student on staff benefits than the nation. That difference accounted for the entire gap in total K-12 expenditures between Wisconsin and the U.S.
Per student spending here was $11,774 in 2011 vs. $10,560 nationally, a difference of $1,214. Wisconsin schools spent $3,437 per child on benefits, $1,174 more than the nationwide average. When benefits are excluded from expenditure totals, per student spending here ($8,337) and nationally ($8,297) were nearly identical.
Following enactment of 2011 Act 10, requiring most public employees to pay a larger share of benefit expenses, fringe benefit costs in Wisconsin began to decline toward the national average. By 2015, benefit spending here had dropped from 52% to 5% higher than the U.S. average.
For the first time it was clear that, benefits aside, Wisconsin and the U.S. had long been devoting similar amounts per student to K-12 education.
In other words, Wisconsin has always spent right around the national average when benefits were not included. When the cost of benefits are included, the cost of education was much higher than the national average.
Instead of “a long way to catch up,” as Evers said, we’ve been there all along. It’s up to other states to catch up to Wisconsin in prioritizing how their education dollars are spent and bring their public employee benefits under control.
Now, instead of catching up, we’re poised to spend more money on education than ever before: $11.5 billion. That’s a $636 million increase in education spending.
It isn’t just Governor Scott Walker bragging about how much more money we’re going to spend on education. When Walker’s state budget was announced, this is what Evers said before he was a Democratic candidate for governor:
A renewed funding commitment for K-12 education is good news. Many of the items Governor Walker outlined in his proposed budget are a direct result of local advocates and school leaders calling for a change of course and a reinvestment in our schools. They also reflect the priorities of my budget request, which include funding mental health supports for all kids, helping rural schools keep the lights on, and providing more spending authority for districts across Wisconsin.
Before Evers became a candidate, the proposed state spending on education “reflect the priorities of my budget request.” After Evers became a candidate, education spending isn’t enough of a priority for state government. Either Evers is so incompetent that it takes him eight months to figure out how much money is being spent on education, or becoming a Democratic candidate for governor came with a knock on the head and sudden amnesia.