School finance is sexy

OK, maybe school finance isn’t sexy, but it’s really important, as a few hundred angry taxpayers indicated recently to the Milwaukee school board, so bear with me here.

I was in Madison Thursday, testifying before the state senate’s education committee in favor a resolution that would set a deadline for a complete overhaul of the way Wisconsin funds public schools. The resolution, written by Rep. Pope-Roberts and Sen. Breske, is cosponsored by nearly half of the legislature. It would require the legislature to come up with a new plan by July 2009.

During the recent MPS budget unrest, I got asked a lot of questions, many of them not printable on a nice, family website like this one. A very polite and reasonable question that came up often was, “Why do we have to spend more if there are fewer students?”

There are many failings in the Wisconsin school funding formula, but one of the key problems is the relationship between a district’s total property wealth and the number of students in the district. In Wisconsin’s perverse funding formula, a district with fewer students but more property wealth has to raise more of its schools’ budget from local property taxes, regardless of the educational needs of students, the household income of the taxpayers, or even regardless of whether that property wealth is accurately measured. That is, because our Milwaukee homes have been subject to inflated valuation – and therefore our city, on paper at least, has more property wealth – the smaller number of students we have in MPS is divided by a bigger amount of money. The result is a higher property-wealth-per-pupil ratio, not in spite of the smaller number of students but because of it.

Think of it this way: If I ask you to divide $100 worth of property value by 50 students, you get a property wealth per pupil of $2. If I then tell you your $100 is actually worth $120 and then take away 10 students, the calculation is now $120 divided by 40, or $3 per pupil. The state then says, “Hey, you’ve got more money than you did last year, so we don’t have to pitch in as much!” And local property taxpayers have to do more, because whether the school has 50 students or 40, you still have to keep the lights on and pay the teacher.

What’s worse, when the property-wealth-per-pupil calculation is done, it doesn’t count the children who attend voucher schools. Many taxpayers don’t realize that MPS dollars are used to fund transportation, special education, recreation, tutoring, and other services for the private schools participating in the publicly-funded private school voucher program. In the example above, this would mean that that inflated $120 is now divided by even fewer children. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that because some students are attending voucher schools, the number of students in our hypothetical MPS school is only 30. Our property wealth per student is now judged to be $4, even though those uncounted students in private schools still draw on taxpayer-funded public education services.

The state school funding formula has lots more problems beyond the property-wealth-per-pupil calculations. Most school districts in the state are not able to function well under it and there is an active movement to put pressure on legislators to fix the problems. The Pope-Roberts/Breske resolution is a way to get the state to do what so many of us parents, homeowners, and policy makers know needs to be done. It won’t be a moment too soon.

While you wait for the legislature to do something, you can keep yourself entertained playing this little school finance game online: . It’s funny, in that sad sort of way. If it makes you too sad, you can also visit my friends at the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools at They’ve been building a network of people across the state who are fed up with our failed school finance system and you might be inspired by WAES’ success at organizing across race, class, economic, political, and geographic lines.

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