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How chronically strapped schools became fixtures on Wisconsin’s ballots

Once again, it’s up to voters across the state to fill in the gaps of a perverse school funding formula.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Once again, it’s up to voters across the state to fill in the gaps of a perverse school funding formula.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

This fall more than 50 school districts across Wisconsin are putting referenda on the ballot, asking taxpayers for a total of $1.9 billion in additional funding, even though the state is sitting on a $1.7 billion “rainy day” fund. Not to mention that last month the Wisconsin Department of Revenue announced the state will have an estimated $5 billion in surplus by the end of the next fiscal year. 

When the state 2021-23 budget was signed, state Republicans touted an increase in school funding. But because they didn’t raise the amount of money school districts could put into their coffers, the money had to be put towards lowering property taxes. It was essentially a property tax cut that passed right through the schools without touching them.

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A sponsor display for the Stoughton Opera House.

Our state’s funding model has squeezed districts to the point that saving for big capital projects is fiscally impossible, so referenda are typically used for funding new buildings or major upgrades. But over time we’ve seen more school districts use referenda to cover basic operating costs. This fall is no exception.

The Appleton Area School district has two questions on the ballot. One is for $129.8 million for facility improvements and the second would allow the district to exceed its revenue limit by up to $5 million per year starting in the 2023-24 school year to cover “ongoing school building maintenance, cleaning and utility costs, staffing for STEM classes and reducing class sizes in kindergarten, first and second grades.”

The Whitewater Unified School District is asking residents to renew a revenue increase that passed in 2018 but expires this year. It is asking to exceed its revenue limit by up to $4.4 million each year for four years to maintain class sizes, student support and mental health services, and more. This isn’t to expand or create anything new, just to maintain the status quo. 

Pulaski Community School District is asking for $1.5 million over five years, just so it can offer competitive wages to maintain staffing and program levels. 

Comb through the statewide list of referenda and there are plenty of other examples across the state of school districts having to ask voters to exceed their revenue limits just to cover their basic operating costs. This is not how referenda are supposed to work.

Unless, of course, that was the plan all along. Keeping state funding for public education low pits property tax payers—who end up shouldering the burden of funding public education—against school districts. It’s the same principle behind keeping shared revenue for municipalities low. And while property owners and local school boards and elected officials duke it out, Wisconsin’s wealthiest individuals and businesses receive tax cuts and demand even more.

The counter-argument is that tying school funding to property taxes empowers taxpayers to hold school districts accountable. But not only does this model drive inequality, it’s not actually effective. When concerns about the quality of education are raised, school districts have an easy answer—it’s the lack of funding. And lack of funding is an issue, make no mistake. But if a school were fully funded, we could have real conversations about the segregation of gifted programs, meeting the needs of special education students, leadership turnover, and pay disparities.

This system also creates a vicious cycle to justify voucher programs. Defunding public schools gives voucher school advocates the evidence they need to argue that private schools deserve to be funded as an alternative to those “failing” schools. But those private schools don’t take all children and are not held to any standards, particularly when it comes to special education or the needs of students with disabilities. 

In one episode of the podcast Nice White Parents, an older woman said that she remembers when there was no such thing as a “good” school or a “bad” school. You just had a neighborhood school and everyone in the neighborhood sent their kids there. And if there was a problem, you worked with that school. 

Private and charter schools love to talk about how they accept a certain number of low-income students who test in. But it’s hard to say why any one student succeeds academically or falls behind. It’s even harder to argue that that snapshot of a child’s academic journey is an indicator of their future success. 

But even more broadly, all children—regardless of where they live, their race or ethnicity, and how much money their family has—deserve equal access to quality education. They shouldn’t have to test into or get bussed into a “good” school. Our neighborhoods should be bursting with good schools that any parent would be proud to send their child to. 

The best avenue for doing so is through fully funding public schools according to their needs. We have the money in the bank right now to do so; it’s just a matter of political will.

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