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The following is an op-ed written by Rick Esenberg, President and General Counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and Dr. Will Flanders, WILL’s Education Research Director.
Because it is one of the most important functions of state government, education policy can arouse passions. There is nothing wrong with feeling strongly about an issue. But emotion is not a substitute for facts and reason, and passion is no excuse for stridency and error. A recent op-ed from Wauwatosa Support Our Schools (SOS) president Mary Young and Women Committed to an Informed Community co-chairs Marva Herndon and Gail Hicks falls way short of that threshold.
The authors lament that politicians have "slashed more than $1 billion from our kids since 2008," disregarding that for a portion of that time Democrats controlled state government in Madison. It is true that both Democratic and Republican administrations faced tough choices and had to reduce state aid to schools during some of the past decade. It is worth remembering that in 2011, Gov. Walker and the Republicans inherited a state that was broke. There was a $3 billion projected deficit. In exchange for a decrease in spending, Walker gave school district superintendents tools to curb costs, resulting in well-documented savings of over $2 billion for school districts. Because the districts could utilize these savings, substantial reductions in actual educational programming were avoided. As the authors concede, the 2011 cut to education has not caused the sky to fall; graduation rates and ACT scores for students who were not yet in high school in 2011 are high compared to other states.
The authors then take local legislators to task for "sending our schools backward" by voting to "funnel millions more in funding away from our kids." Specifically, the authors point to a $5 million cut to schools signed by Governor Walker on March 30.
This is quite the claim, but it is taken way out of context. When school choice was expanded to the entire state, legislators wanted to hold schools harmless. They were allowed to recoup the cost of the vouchers, but a loophole in the law actually permitted schools to make money – to pocket a school choice bonus – for departing children. According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau last year, school districts unnecessarily levied more than $3.7 million in property taxes. This had nothing to do with recouping the cost to the voucher.
The only thing that Walker and the legislature did was prevent districts from exploiting a loophole in the law and unnecessarily raising property taxes. They were right in doing so. Since 2011, the Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature have increased per-pupil K-12 education spending every year. Wisconsin ranks in the top half of states in per-pupil spending at 22nd.
But SOS wants more. The authors call for substantial increases in K-12 public education spending and halting the voucher program. But if there is a reason to do so, it cannot be that more dollars will lead to more learning. An economic analysis at WILL showed that increased K-12 spending in Wisconsin schools does not have a significant relationship to improved student outcomes, such as ACT scores and graduation rates. This is consistent with the great bulk of research regarding the lack of a relationship between more spending and better outcomes. This shouldn’t surprise us. Since 1985, real spending on education has grown by more than $2,000 per student in Wisconsin. Educational outcomes have remained flat.
Part of the issue could be that the type of spending matters; consider that since 1985, while school enrollment has only increased by about 14 percent, non-teaching staff in schools has grown by more than 42 percent. Simply calling for "more" without specifying "why" and for "what" leads to bloat.
We believe that any education spending should be student-focused and carefully targeted to improve outcomes. This should be coupled with empowering parents to make their own decisions about where to send their children to school, whether it be traditional public, public charter or private. Someday, we hope that the op-ed authors would agree with us. Until then, we are happy to continue the debate. But let’s include accurate information and tell the entire story.