In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, Wisconsin spent $12,740 per student–that’s around 5% less than the national average, and it’s in line with nearly a two-decade trend of Wisconsin lagging behind other states in public education spending. That’s according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a non-partisan research organization that examined public school spending between 2002 and 2020.
Sara Shaw is the Forum’s senior education policy researcher, who authored the new report. She said that while Wisconsin’s school spending has grown year by year, the state has still spent comparatively less than other states.
“The state is increasing the amount it puts toward education, but the rate at which that spending is increasing is a slower rate than what we see in the national average. And in fact, Wisconsin had the third-smallest increase in the nation, with the exception only of Idaho and Indiana [which] had smaller increases from 2002 to 2020,” said Shaw.
According to the report, Wisconsin ranked 11th highest in per-pupil spending among all states in 2002. In 2020, however, Wisconsin ranked 25th in spending per pupil.
Shaw said this funding decline has consequences for some of the state’s public schools:
“It might look very different from district to district, but in general we especially hear in recent years as the nation as been experiencing record inflation that it’s getting harder to do anything extra apart from keep up with regular operating expenses. The federal pandemic-relief dollars are helping a little bit there, but they are one-time dollars and we hear a lot of concern from education officials that when those dollars dry up they’re not sure what they’ll be able to do to really address needs that may well have existed prior to the pandemic and were either exacerbated or brought to light in a different way because of the pandemic,” said Shaw.
However, the funding decline is actually worse than it sounds. Where most other states have seen their public school enrollment increase since 2002, Wisconsin has actually seen a nearly 4% percent decline. As Shaw explains, this means the per-pupil number can be misleading:
“Taking into consideration enrollment is important when we’re talking about per-pupil figures because what we see is that with Wisconsin’s enrollment decreasing that means the amount per-pupil actually probably would have gone down further if the enrollment had stayed the same, and the fact that our enrollment decreased probably actually makes our per-pupil figure look a little bit better than it would have otherwise,” said Shaw.
Wisconsin public schools receive 93% of their total funding from a combination of state and local taxes. According to Shaw, school spending has slowed in part because the state has cut taxes since 2002:
“As the proportion of residents’ and business-owners’ income that’s collected via taxes decreases, that means there is less money available to state and local governments, and since one of the primary responsibilities of state and local governments is to fund education, if they have less money to work with almost necessarily education is going to receive less money,” said Shaw.
Between 2002 and 2019, Wisconsin went from collecting about 11% of residents’ total revenue to just over 10%. Although that might seem like a small difference, it meant that the state had $2.5 billion less to spend in 2019 than it did in previous years.
One option for school districts to make up the money is in asking voters to approve extra dollars in local ballot referenda:
“One policy we see a number of local school districts already exercising is the option of going to referendum. A school district will go to referendum in cases where they believe they essentially don’t believe they have enough money to do what they want to do as a district. And they put that on a ballot to residents, to voters, to say essentially ‘will you opt-in to raising your taxes by more so you can fund our public schools?’ And in those cases it’s then up to voters to decide directly on their ballots, either yes I’m going to vote for this referendum or no I’m not going to vote for that. So that’s on a very local level a policy option that we see many school districts already exercising, and in fact in a number of cases voters saying ‘yes, we do want to fund more, we do want to have more money going to our public schools,'” said Shaw.
From 2002 to 2020, voters in Wisconsin passed more than 1,000 referenda to provide additional funds to their local school districts.
Reporting for WORT, this is Andie Barrow.
Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Policy Forum.