As reported this week, a referendum for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is being discussed by district administrators. This referendum would be the first for the district since the mid-1990s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is necessary. What is necessary is referendum proponents need to use facts to justify why more funding is needed.
Here’s what folks need to know leading up to what could be one of the biggest school funding referendum fights in recent memory.
Once federal, state, and local dollars are taken into account, MPS received nearly $15,000 per student during the 2016-17 school year (the most recent year of data available from DPI). This is more about $1,500 more per student than the average district in the state. Indeed, MPS ranks in the top quarter of states for funding, but is significantly more reliant on state and federal aids to achieve that funding level, as the city itself suffers from low property values in most areas.
There is little reason to expect that more funding will make a difference in terms of student outcomes. In an analysis I conducted last year analyzing proficiency rates of all districts throughout the state in comparison to revenue, I found no correlation between funding and student performance even after the inclusion of control variables for student characteristics. Indeed, MPS has woeful proficiency rates often in the single digits despite its high level of funding. One of those non-relationships—between spending and ACT scores—is depicted below. As can be clearly seen, the line slopes down, if anything.
This is consistent with the preponderance of evidence from national studies that tend to find little to no relationship between funding and outcomes. While some new research has endeavored to resurrect that tired claim, important methodological concerns remain about how they reached those conclusions.
The bottom line is that districts like MPS are well past the point of diminishing returns, where additional dollars are unlikely to make a meaningful difference.
Further giving lie to the need for additional funding is the presence of voucher and charter schools in the city. These schools educate the same types of students—often from low-income and minority backgrounds—yet do it for significantly less funding. In the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, schools only receive $8,046 for K-8 students and $8,692 for 9th-12th grade students. Students in independent and non-instrumentality charter schools receive about $8,800 per student.
Not only do these schools get by with less funding, but they actually do a better job at educating students. Recent studies have found higher proficiency rates on state exams, lower risk of criminal activity, and a greater possibility of graduating from college. Rather than demanding more money from Milwaukee taxpayers, perhaps the district should try to learn from what these schools are doing to cut wasteful spending.
Despite its relative poverty, the city property tax rate ranks in the top one percent of the more than 1,900 municipalities in Wisconsin. To ask these property owners to pay even more seems ludicrous once the evidence is considered.
Fighting this referendum will prove quite a challenge for opponents. According to the Journal Sentinel, the plan is to hold the referendum alongside the Democratic primary, which means fans of profligate spending and teacher’s union members will be out in force. Milwaukee taxpayers should carefully scrutinize the details and justifications for any referendum and not automatically reward the educational status quo.
Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.