Education funding and policy is emerging as the top issue in the race for Governor between incumbent Scott Walker and his challenger Tony Evers.
Evers, a three-term State Superintendent, welcomes the spotlight on the department he has led since 2009. Meanwhile, Walker can claim a $639 million boost in K-12 funding in the current budget cycle.
As the candidates enter full-campaign mode, we took a look at some of the raw numbers of state funding for K-12 education and clarified some of the exaggerated claims by both candidates.
School funding is generally made up of two parts. State aid is the amount the state puts forth in its biennial budget. The levy is the amount of money your school district gets from your property taxes. In 1993, the state adopted revenue limits, or the total amount of money your school district can receive through both funding sources. If state aid goes up, the levy must come down, and vice versa, to stay under that revenue limit.
When Scott Walker became governor in 2011, he cut $426.5 million from K-12 education, putting total state funding at $4.85 billion. At the same time, he lowered the school district’s revenue limits by $1.6 billion, meaning districts could not raise local property taxes to make up for the funding cuts.
School districts made up for some of the cuts in funding through provisions provided in Act 10, which restricted collective bargaining for public sector employees and required teachers to pay a portion of their health care and retirement costs. Total school costs decreased by 5.1 percent in the year after Act 10 was implemented, although that figure is better understood as a shift in costs from school districts to employees instead of true cost savings. Still, Wisconsin is in the middle of the pack when it comes to teacher salaries across the 50 states.
Evers primarily points to Walker’s initial deductions in school funding when he criticizes the governor’s approach to school funding.
Evers claimed, “Governor Walker has taken over a billion dollars from the public schools and it hasn’t been replaced.” But Evers uses some creative math to reach that number.
Walker has gradually increased funding for K-12 education since his initial deduction in 2011. In the current 2018-19 school year, funding is at $5.84 billion, a 10.8 percent increase from the budget Walker’s predecessor, Jim Doyle, handed him in 2011.
In his attack, Evers added the cumulative funding deficit below Doyle’s $5.27 billion benchmark for Walker’s first four years in office. If funding stayed at $5.27 billion, schools would have had more than $1 billion in additional funding in the four-year period.
But Walker’s more recent funding increases have brought that number back up to $183.6 million below the cumulative funding levels set by Doyle.
A big reason for that rebound is the current biennial budget, which Walker misleadingly claims is a “record” investment. The $11.5 billion spread across two years is the most in Wisconsin history in raw dollars, but not when adjusted for inflation. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, Walker’s funding in the current budget is below levels set by the past three administrations, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (now the Wisconsin Policy Forum).
Evers also accused Walker’s education funding policies of harming school districts so much that more voters are electing to raise their own taxes through referendum, which is supported with some data.
In the first half of 2018, 84.5 percent of the 71 referenda pursued throughout the state passed, which is around 20 percentage points higher than any year since 1999. In each of the eight years Walker has been governor, referenda have passed at a higher rate than each of the past four administrations.
Education funding will continue to be a charged topic for both gubernatorial candidates in the final weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election.
Sources: The Wheeler Report, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Wisconsin Policy Forum, Politifact