Beware skewed numbers on school funding 

School choice advocates sharpen their pens for a new round of privatization lobbying

October 25, 2022 6:00 am
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The Badger Institute, a conservative Wisconsin think tank, touts its “instrumental” role in “successes ranging from implementation of school choice to the passage of right-to-work legislation to the repeal of prevailing wage and overly onerous occupational licensure laws.” 

Last week it came out with a new report, “Mandate for Madison: Policy Recommendations for a More Prosperous Wisconsin” that could serve as a blueprint for Republican initiatives in the 2022-23 legislative session. Along with cutting taxes and rejecting federal help to expand health care, the report calls for expanding the privatization of Wisconsin’s education system.

In the section on education goals, the report states: “All families should be given the ability to direct the education dollars the state has designated for their children to the school that works best for them.”

The report touts the steady growth of Wisconsin’s school choice program, which it claims has shown unconditionally better results than traditional public schools. Veteran education reporter Alan Borsuk refutes that claim in his Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series on the 30-year anniversary of Milwaukee’s first-in-the-nation school voucher program. Reading and math scores of voucher students aren’t much different from students in the regular Milwaukee public schools, Borsuk reports. He concludes: “Whatever is needed to push the button to start up booming academic achievement, vouchers aren’t it.”

As Wisconsin’s school choice program has grown, expanding to include a program in Racine and then a statewide school voucher program, so has the number of private school families taking advantage of taxpayer-financed tuition vouchers whose kids have never attended public school. Each year that the statewide program has expanded, more of the new students it enrolls come from private schools as opposed to public schools.

Meanwhile, school choice advocates have moved past demanding that Wisconsin taxpayers spend part of the money intended to fund public schools to cover private school tuition — they now decry the “inequity” of the current system because, they say, choice schools aren’t getting enough money.

The numbers upon which the Badger Institute stakes this claim are telling.

According to a section of the Mandate for Madison titled “Inequity in Funding,” while schools in Wisconsin’s three parental choice programs received between $8,00-$9,000 per pupil, “Traditional public school districts spent between $11,000 and $22,000 per pupil.” Drawing on figures from the Department of Public Instruction, the report states that “The statewide average was $15,329 per pupil.”

A tiny footnote number is affixed to that statement. If a motivated reader flips to the end of the chapter and reads the small print in note No. 13, she will discover the following disclaimer: “To be clear: This number includes federal money for poor and disabled students, some of which — the percent varies by district — benefits private school pupils.”

Got that? All that money the report claims goes to public school pupils actually includes money spent on private voucher school students.

The footnote continues: 

“The number also includes school districts’ spending on transportation, some of which benefits private school pupils, since districts by constitutional requirement cannot bar such students from school buses.”

In other words, the “average” spending on public school students is a useless figure for comparison purposes with private voucher school kids.

If the Badger Institute wanted to be clear from the beginning, instead of claiming that public school students are receiving $15,329 and then, in tiny type at the bottom of the report, noting that number includes funding for private school students as well, it could have just used the average statewide per-pupil revenue limit number on the DPI website, which is $11,454. (Update: according to DPI, per pupil categorical aid of $742 is not included in the revenue limit number, so the total average statewide per pupil amount is $12,196.)

School finance is complicated and making apples-to-apples comparisons among schools and districts that serve different populations is difficult. The cost of special education, for example, weighs down many districts, which is why Gov. Tony Evers has repeatedly proposed that the state shoulder more of that burden, instead of leaving it up to some districts to cut programs to cover the federally mandated expense of caring for students with special needs. 

None of that is covered in the Badger Institute report, which vastly oversimplifies the costs and challenges involved in funding education. 

The Mandate for Madison is a political document. While its research claims are dubious, the talking points are worth paying attention to. These show that the school choice lobby has shifted from arguing that disadvantaged kids deserve an escape route from schools that aren’t meeting their needs — the original rationale for Milwaukee’s school voucher program — to arguing that it is unconscionable that the state is not covering the full costs of sending every Wisconsin kid, including those from well-off families, to the private school of their parents’ choice. That’s a much more expensive proposition. 

According to the Badger Institute: “The pathway forward is clear: Eligibility for the publicly funded education options should be uniform. All Wisconsin residents who must abide by mandatory attendance laws and pay taxes should be eligible.”

Private school for everyone! 

That’s a short pathway to bankrupting the public school system.

As the Legislature’s former education chair Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) put it in his exit interview with the Sheboygan Press upon his retirement, “No one has tried to explain how we’re going to fund parallel school programs. Because that’s where we’re heading.”

Kestell lamented the school choice expansion in which “the math doesn’t work” as “a case where ideology sort of overwhelms good sense and judgment.”

GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels is a big proponent of school choice ideology. He has promised to introduce universal school choice in Wisconsin in his first budget if he’s elected governor. 

Michels owns a $17 million mansion in Connecticut as well as a New York City penthouse, and sent his kids to expensive private schools in New York and Greenwich, Connecticut (At Brunswick School, from which Michels’ youngest son graduated in 2021, high school tuition is $49,750 per year.)  

Dismantling Wisconsin’s public education system to create tuition vouchers for every family might sound good to people who never sent their kids to Wisconsin public schools, and who are all in favor of liquidating the public school system and extracting whatever cash they can get out of it. 

But for most Wisconsinites, a high quality public education system is a better deal.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.