Earlier this week, Governor Scott Walker got behind a plan to allow 145 public school districts to increase property taxes for their schools. In addition, the plan would increase state-level sparsity aid to these school districts.
While money for schools is politically popular, it is important to maintain some context in this discussion. Consider the following three hard truths about this plan:
(1) The revenue limit is not the only source of money for school districts. On top of the funding they receive under the revenue limit, school districts receive per-pupil aid from the state as well as the sparsity aid that goes to rural districts with few students. Per-pupil aid, a flat payment that goes to every school district in the state based on the number of students enrolled, is set to increase from $250 to $654 per student over the next two years. Sparsity aid is currently paid at $300 per member. It is provided to school districts below certain thresholds of overall enrollment and number of students per square mile. Even without accounting for other sources of aid, such as federal aid, we are already at more than $10,150 per student for these ostensibly low revenue schools by the 2019 school year.
Of course, the total aid for these school districts is still less than the total aid for other districts. But an important question to ask is how much is enough.
(2) Throwing more money at these schools is unlikely to improve student outcomes. There is extensive evidence for diminishing returns in education spending, including work produced by WILL. Even research that has found positive benefits to increased education spending generally finds such benefits when districts with high levels of poverty are given more money, and Wisconsin already has a funding system that does that.
This is further evidenced by an examination of the performance of Wisconsin’s choice and charter schools, which receive significantly less funding than traditional public schools. In 2015, WILL conducted a study that examined which public schools in the state have the biggest ‘bang for the buck.’ In other words, which schools get the highest academic outcomes per taxpayer dollar expended? Contrary to what the proponents of more spending would have you believe, it appears that the greater freedom afforded to charter schools is the key driver of their performance despite receiving several thousand dollars less per student than traditional public schools in Milwaukee.
(3) Consolidation may offer a more long-term solution. Before putting the taxpayers on the hook for more money in these school districts, it is important for policymakers to ask themselves whether there are alternatives that could have a similar—or larger—positive impact on the students in these school districts.
The reality is that the population of the state of Wisconsin is changing, just like the rest of the United States. We are becoming a more urban state, and more and more families are choosing to raise their kids in larger urban centers. In the predominately rural Wisconsin of the past, having many small school districts may have made good sense. The local school served as a center of the community for many small towns. But today, this system is untenable.
The state of Florida has 20.6 million residents. Wisconsin has 5.8 million. Both states are about the same number of square miles. Florida has 67 school districts. Wisconsin has 425. The vast majority of these additional districts have a very small tax base and a very small number of students but still bear all of the overhead costs of running a school district—such as facilities, a central office, and bussing.
This can be remedied, to some extent, by consolidating districts. Consolidation doesn’t have to mean the closure of schools in all instances. It could mean simply combining administration and services which would lead to substantial savings.
Consolidation is not, of course, the only solution. But throwing more money at small school districts simply to sustain an antiquated system of education does not make logical sense in the long term.