Accelify Blog

Burning Questions: Evers Has Proposal to Change School Funding (WI)

June 30, 2010

The state’s formula for funding its public school districts is broken and Tony Evers wants to fix it.

Evers, elected in April 2009 as the state superintendent of public instruction, announced last week a proposal to reform school funding.

"I’ve been in public education for 37 years and we’ve been messing with this for so long, I feel it’s important that the state school superintendent take a lead on it," Evers said in an interview Friday at The Post-Crescent.

Called Fair Funding for our Future, the proposal addresses several areas of the funding formula to both make it fairer for districts and provide them with more financial stability.

Here’s an edited transcript of the interview, in which Evers lays out the plan:

On changing the importance of a district’s property value in determining how much state aid it gets:

The funding system now is primarily focused on property wealth as a measure of how poor or not poor a district is. Over the years, people realized that that’s a fallacy.

There are 20 districts in the state that don’t receive aid because they have high property value. But many of them exceed the state average in poverty as it relates to free and reduced lunch. They have a lot of recreational area and it’s wealthy, but the people who live there are way below the poverty line. So the first thing we want to do is fix that.

We don’t have specific number but we would provide a basic foundation so every student in Wisconsin, no matter where they live, has some general state aid following them.

The other thing we’re going to do is to use a weighting formula. We’re looking to weight kids by 0.1, 0.2 — count them more in the funding system and kind of nudge the system from the property value to kids and what kind of needs they have.

It’s pretty consistent in the state and the country that, if you’re born into a family with inadequate resources, you come to school behind, for all sorts of reasons. These first two points deal directly with that issue.

The third thing we’re hoping to do is provide predictable growth. Every year, districts can’t do any planning until the final budget is done. What we propose is to put into the statutes a minimum increase that would be there every year. We want to put a figure in there and we want to hold them to it.

&#x0A ;It’ll be a floor so at least districts will have a worst-case scenario. The state support should increase regularly if we’re going to continue to have quality education.

Then, the next piece is continuing to support our efforts around rural schools. We want to make sure that’s adequately funded.

On changing how the school levy tax credit works:

Right now, they talk about two-thirds funding for schools or 60 percent funding for schools (by the state) and, frankly, I’m tired of that. That’s not even worth talking about anymore because we don’t know what that means.

The Legislature counts $900 million for property tax levy credit as school aid. Well, that doesn’t go to schools, it hasn’t gone to schools, it never will go to schools.

It’s our belief that the $900 million should be put into the general aid program. We believe that we can do that without increasing property taxes.

We’re not suggesting that the revenue limits go away. We still need those for a period of time. What it means is that schools will get this money directly, instead of having to levy for it.

The property tax credit that you see on your property tax bill will go away. But because the school will be getting far more aid, but they’re still constrained by levy limits, they will need to levy less. This will be a net of zero.

The goal is to remove the tax levy credit as state aid because it’s not. It’s more honest. School aid is school aid. … It removes a politically easy out for saying you’re funding schools.

On changing how categorical aids for schools work:

Right now, w e have more than 40 categorical aids in Wisconsin, ranging from as something as large as special education aid to as small as a $50,000 grant.

Categorical aids come into play when an interest group wants something done. It’s kind of grown over time. I believe that we need to take a look at each one of them individually, combine some, maybe eliminate some.

It’s our goal to create a more robust categorical aid program, with fewer categorical aids but they’re focused — on increasing graduation rates, on closing achievement gaps. They’re also focused on performance. There should be some accountability for some of these categorical aids and there isn’t now.

On protecting schools from facing reductions in state aid:

The last idea is protecting school districts and taxpayers on reductions in state aid because of reductions in enrollment or any number of reasons. Right now, there’s a hold harmless of 15 percent. You can’t drop 15 percent. We would argue that that needs to be 10 percent, or maybe even 5 percent. It’s not fair to the taxpayers. It’s certainly not fair to the kids.

On what’s next for the proposal:

We’re going to be working with a group of folks over the summer, reaching out to school districts, the business community. We want to make this happen.

It’s a first step in reforming our system. It’s a step that doesn’t necessarily bring in enormous revenues. This is absolutely an important thing for our schools because if we don’t get the system right first, arguments about if we should have more sales tax or income tax or anything are irrelevant because the system is still broken.

It’s something I ran on. I feel strongly about t his system, which is broken. We need to turn it around now or our schools will continue to fall further and further behind.