In the aftermath of the coronavirus shutdown, school districts throughout the state will likely have to deal with several years of tight budgets. Yet many districts may not be sufficiently accounting for declines in state aid when making their budget for next year. 

For example, despite crafting a budget since the outbreak of the virus, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has proposed a budget that already includes deficits within two years.  

No doubt school choice opponents will try to scapegoat educational freedom as a “huge drain” on public education as they have in the past. However, this will remain a red herring argument. In general districts around the state continue to make heavy expenditures in areas that are only tangentially related to classroom performance at best. 

Wisconsin public school teachers made, on average, $55,985 in salary during the 2017-18 school year with an average of 14.2 students per teacher.  During that school year, spending was $13,670 per student in local, state and federal funding. This means that about $195,392 is spent on the average classroom in the state. Of that, only about 28.4% ends up in the pockets of teachers. Where is the rest of the money going?

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An illuminating answer comes from investigating the share of district staff that are teachers relative to those in other roles. We can use data from DPI’s “All Staff” files over the past decade to tease this out. The chart below shows the percentage of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) staff in the 10 largest districts in the state that are identified as teachers by the Department of Public Instruction since 2008. The majority of districts fall below the 50% threshold in every year–meaning that for every teacher in the district, there is more than one employee in another role. 

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The biggest offenders in recent years are Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Racine. Both of these districts have dropped below the 40% level in recent years for several consecutive years. In fact, WILL’s 2019 Truth in Spending study found, “The percentage of money a district spends on [administration and transportation costs] relative to others is associated with lower performance on state exams.” 

This story is not unique to Wisconsin. Throughout the country, administrative staffing has increased exponentially over time. An analysis from EdChoice of national data showed that non-teaching staff had grown by a staggering 709% since 1950 even as the number of students only increased by 100%. 

Who are these non-teachers? While some serve in classroom support roles, many have roles that one must question whether taxpayers should finance under the guise of funding public education. With many districts experiencing declining enrollments, the new budget pressures from COVID-19 ought to force some critical reexamination of how resources are allocated and whether funds are being spent efficiently.

As school districts begin to voice concerns over the cuts they will face, it is incumbent on policymakers and taxpayers to ask the tough questions. Why is the percentage of teaching FTEs declining in so many districts? Why is less than 30% of district funding going to the individuals directly responsible for teaching children?

WILL has supported legislation that would force districts to open their books, and make it easier for taxpayers and policymakers to answer these vital question. It is only when satisfactory answers can be provided that more state help should be considered. 

Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.