An ‘F’ for Funding Formula

In a new report, a school funding advocacy group claims the state’s school funding system is not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide “for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable.”

Segregation of Opportunity: A Longitudinal Study of Wisconsin Education Funding used eight years of school finance and tax data to examine the statewide impact of the current funding formula on Wisconsin community schools. The study provides strong evidence that the current school finance system is no longer fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide Wisconsin students an equal educational opportunity as defined in the State Supreme Court Vincent v. Voight decision in 2000.

In a press release accompanying the report by the non-partisan Forward Institute, the Association for Equity in Funding (AEF), which commissioned the report, stated that the report demonstrates “a systemic failure to ensure that the moral purpose of public education as defined by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Vincent vs. Voight is being fulfilled:  An equal opportunity for a sound basic education is one that will equip students for their roles as citizens and enable them to succeed economically and personally.”

The AEF believes there are three main reasons for the failure of the current funding formula:

• Unequal property wealth;

• Unequal concentration of students with additional educational needs;

• State payments that do not equalize wealth or address the cost of meeting additional educational needs.

“Because the system still depends on local property wealth as a major source of funding, the wide variation in the property tax levels cannot be ignored. Its cumulative impact will be played out in classrooms and in the lives of students as they grow up,” the report states.

“We can’t cut ourselves to prosperity. It’s not going to work,” said Tony Klaubauf, the longest-serving member of the AEF’s steering committee and administrator of the Denmark School district.

“We believe as a group that things have gotten worse. That’s why we commissioned the study,” he said. “We think things have gotten significantly worse in the last few years, and that’s what the study found out.”

Klaubauf said the AEF was created by educators in 1992 to accomplish two very distinct things:  “Adequate funding for students, but also equal treatment of taxpayers across the state. That’s the one that doesn’t get much attention. It shouldn’t be that taxpayers in one district are overburdened with taxes for schools, especially if their funding is at or below the state average, when a school down the road a little bit has a lower tax burden because of a higher property value in their district.”

The study concluded the following:

1. The school funding system is depriving many Wisconsin children and communities the resources they need to provide equal educational opportunities; these same communities are being forced to increase property taxes just to provide the basics. The situation has gotten worse over time.

2. Because of the unfair funding formula, the more high needs students (poverty, special needs, English language learners) a school district has, the less educational opportunities that are available to all children in that district.

3. The inequality of opportunity between different types of school districts with different student populations and community wealth has been getting worse over time – leaving more of our children and communities behind.

4. High poverty schools have significantly lower revenue limits, which deprive them of critical funding for educational opportunities. This negative effect is getting worse over time.

The final conclusion is that the system is not meeting its obligations, as shown between gaps in per pupil funding and spending, resulting in a child’s educational opportunities being determined by where he/she lives.

“Ultimately what the study reveals is that Wisconsin’s funding formula no longer adequately funds all school districts,” said AEF President John Gaier. “This has resulted in widening gaps of opportunities for students and communities. Low property value communities are shouldering a greater burden for funding local school districts. A better funding system is needed for Wisconsin school students to have the opportunities needed for them to be college and career ready, regardless of life circumstances or the community in which they live.”

With the release of the report, Klaubauf said the next step is to get the word out to the public.

“We’re going to see what kind of reaction we’re going to get. We have discussed having a series of press conferences around the state, emphasizing things in our area that schools have had to deal with. What we may be dealing with in northeast Wisconsin may be different from what they are dealing with in northwest Wisconsin,” he said. “We’ll talk about the study, not try to push AEF or anything, but try to push that this is a statewide problem. If we bury our heads and only worry about our local districts, we’re doing a real disservice to our kids.”