This is a sticky wicket.
A commission formed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, headed by two GOP lawmakers with a longstanding interest in K-12 education and composed of Democrats, Republicans, school officials, advocates and educators met for the first time Thursday to begin the first serious review in 20 years.
“I think there’s widespread agreement that the current school funding formula in Wisconsin is not working as well as it should,” Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, told reporters ahead of the commission’s first meeting.
But the task could be tough — rewriting the state’s school funding formula will almost certainly have a hefty price tag if lawmakers want to avoid reducing funding for dozens of school districts.
Kitchens, along with Senate Education Committee chairman Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, are leading the commission and said Thursday that while there is not a fundamental, overarching problem with the formula there are areas where the system could be improved.
“I think being realistic politically — it’s going to cost money,” Kitchens said. “If half the districts in the state lose on this plan, we’ll never get it passed. So I think that’s the expectation — that there’s going to be an investment.”
Here’s the problem… everyone hates the school funding formula because it’s a Byzantine calculation where almost every school district thinks they are getting screwed. “Fixing” it is a misnomer because there isn’t any way to tweak it that will correct that perception. Because there isn’t any real way to “fix” it, the spending advocates just use the process of “fixing” the funding formula as a stalking horse to increase spending on education. The inevitable result will be the same as it always is… the taxpayers will spend more and the school districts will still gripe that they aren’t getting enough.
Instead of going down the well-trod path, why don’t the Republicans tackle some real reform? Remember that before the mid-1990s, the local taxpayers were primarily responsible for funding K-12 education. In order to get local school districts to cut property taxes, Governor Tommy Thompson pushed through the ambitious plan for state taxpayers to take primary responsibility to fund two-thirds of K-12 education in the state. In came the aforementioned funding formula as a way to distribute the state portion of education funding in a way that was considered equitable when compared with local taxpayers’ ability to pay for their own schools.
It is time to acknowledge that one of the central purposes of Thompson’s plan has failed: state funding of K-12 education has not kept property taxes down. Immediately after the 1995-1997 budget, there was a significant drop in property taxes for schools and it remained lower for several years. But as it inevitably happens, the local property taxes crept back up year after year until they are higher than ever.
So why are state taxpayers still the primary funding source for local schools? Why don’t we return both the responsibility and control of school funding to the local taxpayers? Yes, there will still be a need for state taxpayers to help fund some school districts where the local tax base won’t support it – particularly in rural areas – but that is much, much less than what state taxpayers currently spend. With more local control, then local taxpayers can choose what they want to do with their schools and foot the bill for their choices. Here is what I would consider:
- Cut state spending for education dramatically to just cover districts where the local tax base is too small to support the district.
- Cut the taxes that go with that spending. There might be enough there to eliminate almost all of the state income tax (State K-12 spending = about $6.8 billion per year. State income tax brings in about $7.7 billion per year)
- Give local districts complete discretion over their local tax levy
- Allow local taxpayers to leverage additional funding sources, like a local sales tax, with a binding referendum.
Do we still have the stomach for real reform or are we just going to tinker with the formula?