School spending doesn’t help grades

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Speaker Robin Vos agreed with Gov. Tony Evers that Wisconsin’s government schools need an increase in spending in the next state budget. Now they are just arguing over the amount. The push for more and more spending on government schools is being fueled by two myths. The first myth is that more spending will result in better education. The second myth is that we are not spending enough already. Let us debunk those myths.

Wisconsin taxpayers have been increasing spending on public education for decades with little to show for it. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Education, Wisconsin’s government schools spent an average of $3,224 per student in the 1982-1983 school year. By last year, that number had grown to $13,505 per student, or, accounting for inflation, $5,190 in 1982 dollars. That is a 61 percent increase in per-pupil spending in normalized dollars.

With that generous increase in spending, the people should expect a solid increase in educational outcomes, right? Wrong. There isn’t any longitudinal performance data for Wisconsin that stretches back that far. More recent data shows that ACT and standardized test scores have remained stubbornly static in Wisconsin. But countless studies have shown that America’s educational performance has remained static or declined over that time period. Subjectively, few people would attempt to argue that a 2018 graduate received an education that is 61% better than a 1983 graduate. Spending more money has not resulted in a better education.

Yet despite all of the additional spending, our government schools have perpetuated a myth that they are underfunded. That is difficult to believe when they continue to waste so much money. For example, Wisconsin’s government schools allow exceedingly high teacher absenteeism.

The Wisconsin DPI tracks student absenteeism and classifies students who miss ten or more days of school as “high risk.” The federal Department of Education tracks how many teachers are absent for 10 or more days per school year. The most recent data show a lot of high-risk teachers in Washington County. The percentage of teachers who were absent for more than 10 days during the school year was 21.7% in West Bend, 18.5% in Slinger, 28.1% in Germantown, and a whopping 30.8% in Kewaskum. These percentages of chronic absenteeism are stunning given that there are only about 187 annual work days for teachers compared to 260 for most other professions.

According to a study by the Thomas Fordham Institute, teachers in traditional public schools in America are almost three times more likely to be chronically absent as teachers in charter schools, and teachers in unionized charter schools are twice as likely to be chronically absent as their non-unionized charters. Act 10 allowed for school boards to address chronic absenteeism by taking everything off of the union bargaining table except pay, but almost no school districts have taken any action to tackle teacher absenteeism.

Another area where school districts have failed to leverage Act 10 to economize is in the area of health insurance. According to DPI data, Wisconsin school districts spend an average of $20,110 for a family medical insurance plan. Of that, school districts ask employees to pay an average of 11.75% of the premium. That compares to national averages of $18,764 and 33%, respectively. By simply shopping for more economical health insurance plans and asking employees to pay a more reasonable portion of the premium, Wisconsin’s government schools could liberate millions of dollars in their budgets.

Many taxpayers might also be surprised to learn how few of the dollars spent on government schools are actually used for instruction. According to DPI data, Wisconsin’s government schools only spend 53.6% of every dollar on instruction. The rest of it is spent on facilities (6.9%), transportation (3.9%), support staff (9.5%), administration (7.7%), and “other” (13.4%). Any organization that only spends 53.6% of its revenue on its primary function is woefully inefficient.

The evidence shows that spending more on government schools will not result in better educational outcomes. It also shows that Wisconsin’s government schools continue to waste an inordinate amount of money that never even makes it to a classroom. Spending more money on these schools may make politicians feel better about themselves, but it does not benefit kids or families.