Rep. Joel Kitchens and his co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, Sen. Luther Olsen, hope to bring a revamped version of the school funding formula before the legislature in the next session.
After spending most of 2018 touring the state and hearing from stakeholders on the challenges posed by the existing funding formula, which functions on a three-tiered model with a dozen special categories for additional aid, Kitchens said there were three particular comments that districts statewide brought forth.
“The old formula didn’t reflect changes in demographics,” Kitchens said. “When schools get smaller [the formula] didn’t handle that very fairly and that affects all of the rural districts,” Kitchens said.
The commission found that 61 percent of school districts in Wisconsin are experiencing declining enrollment. Because most school funding is tied to enrollment, when a district loses students, it also loses revenue even though overhead costs remain the same.
Kitchens also said the formula did not adapt well to urban districts that are finding they need more funding for mental health, impoverished children and non-English speakers than they did 20 years ago.
“The challenges they face, and are only getting worse, with poverty, single-parent households, I think are going to need special attention,” he said.
The commission also expects to look at ways increasingly smaller districts, particularly in southwest Wisconsin, can combine services to continue to provide students with a wealth of educational opportunity.
“Nobody wants to force districts to shut down,” he said. “You reach the point where they’re not able to make it both financially and you’re penalizing the kids when the districts get so small you can’t offer courses.”
This week, Kitchens and Olsen met with the other commission members to discuss the findings of the listening sessions and begin drafting recommendations they hope will be proposed in the 2019 legislative session. But Kitchens said the public probably won’t hear what those recommendations are before the Nov. 6 election.
“I don’t want to do it in the middle of an election because it gets turned into political football,” he said. “We’ve really been trying to make it bipartisan.”