Somewhat lost amid the news on Tony Evers’ inauguration as Wisconsin’s governor, the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on school funding released its recommendations on January 4th. While there are a number of suggestions in the 16-page document that could be beneficial to education in Wisconsin, it seems that another opportunity for bold reform has been passed up. We’ll discuss some of each.
Aid for Low Income Students & 4K.
The commission recommends increasing the funding for students who come from low income families by 20 percent in the funding formula. This will result in additional funding for districts that have high numbers of low-income students, including Milwaukee and many rural communities. This represents a potential step towards student-centered funding, something that I voiced support for in my testimony before the commission.
However, no mention is made of applying this same boost to the state’s voucher students. Approximately 75 percent of students who use a voucher in Wisconsin come from low-income families, far higher than the statewide average of about 32 percent. In recognizing that low-income students may benefit from additional resources, the state should apply the same standard to private voucher and charter schools.
The commission also recommends increasing the amount of funding for students enrolled in 4K to the same amount as older students. No mention is made of voucher students here either, but it seems only fair that voucher schools educating 4K student receive the same boost.
Gifted and Talented Funding
The commission recommends providing between $500,000 and $2.5 million for gifted and talented grants throughout the state. This is in recognition of the fact, highlighted by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in a policy brief, that gifted education in Wisconsin is given little financial support despite that school districts are required to identify and provide services to gifted students.
While funding for such programs is likely welcome, there are other means of increasing services for gifted students that could be far more effective. For instance, last year legislation was proposed for the creation of a Gifted and Talented Education Savings Account (ESA). This ESA would have provided access to supplemental education—such as college classes or tutoring—to students identified as gifted throughout the state. This program would empower parents and families—those with the greatest familiarity with the needs of their students—with the power to choose a collection of services that would be help their own child excel. Simply throwing money at gifted programs short-circuits this process, and the ESA mechanism ought to be considered again by the legislature.
School Aid Distribution
Among the recommendations on distributing school aid, increasing the number of yearly payments to districts from 4 to 12. Under this plan, districts would receive 12 equal payments throughout the year. If we are building in more payment periods, why not take advantage of this to more accurately adjust payment for changes in the population of students in a school? We know that students move around throughout the year, particularly in low-income communities. Schools that gain students unexpectedly could benefit from the ability to immediately count new kids, while schools that lose kids could have their aid reduced for students they are no longer educating. This would move the ball even further in the direction of student-based funding.
And, once again, private voucher schools have been left out of the discussion here. Schools in the choice program in Milwaukee suffer as well from the irregularity of payments, and even have difficulty securing loans on occasion due to an inability to demonstrate predictable funds. Let’s apply the new pay schedule to private choice schools.
The commission has some interesting ideas for encouraging district consolidation. Without a doubt, Wisconsin has far too many school districts for its size and population. Consider Florida and Wisconsin, two states of very similar land area but very different populations. Wisconsin has about 5.7 million people and 422 school districts. Florida has about 21 million people and 67 school districts—one per county.
The commission proposes incentivizing consolidation by providing additional per pupil funding on a short term basis for schools that enter grade sharing, and additional funding per pupil of $150 per student for consolidated districts. Because the cost savings from consolidation could be substantial, these seem like reasonable moves that ought to be encouraged.
Consolidation is not the answer for every area of the state—some areas are doubtless too remote for reasonable transportation times. But a substantial reduction in the number of school districts in the state ought to be encouraged.
The Blue Ribbon Commission has proposed some valid ideas, but do not go far enough if we truly want to transform education funding in Wisconsin. Nonetheless, their proposals can serve as welcome jumping off point for a school funding debate that needs to happen in our state.
Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.