Boots & Sabers

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0816, 15 Apr 21

Wisconsin needs fair funding for government schools

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

There is another wave of borrowed money gushing out of Washington. The latest round of purposefully wasteful spending ushered in by Democrats includes over $2.2 billion for Wisconsin’s government schools. The distribution of these funds illustrates the folly of government and offers state lawmakers an opportunity to prove that they are smarter and fairer than those in Washington.


The American Rescue Plan Act is the official name for the stimulus bill that passed in March without a single Republican vote. The bill transfers our grandchildren’s wealth into our own pockets in a variety of ways including direct payments to current citizens, more welfare, and, of course, mountains of money for state and local governments.


The law was sold to the American citizens as vitally important to repair the economic damage done by the pandemic and backfill the budgets of state and local governments for expenses related to the pandemic. When the Democrats wrote the bill, however, the distribution mechanisms they included bear very little relationship to the pandemic. Stimulus checks are going to prisoners and people who do not need it. Billions of dollars are being spent to incentivize unemployment. And, of course, money sent to governments irrespective of how they handled the pandemic.


In the case of Wisconsin’s schools, federal law dictates that 90% of the money being sent to local government school districts must be distributed according to the same formula used to distribute Title 1 Part A funds. Title 1 Part A funds are distributed according to the number of low-income students in each district. In other words, the distribution of the so-called “rescue plan” money has absolutely no relationship to the pandemic. It is being distributed based on the rules from a law passed 56 years ago.


The actual numbers illustrate the magnitude of the disconnect. For example, the Milwaukee Public School District is to receive a whopping $798 million, or $11,242 per student. That is nearly an entire year’s budget coming in a single windfall for the district. Meanwhile, the neighboring Waukesha Public School District, for example, is receiving about $17 million, or $1,366 per student.


These two school districts had very different responses to the pandemic. The Waukesha district has been providing some form of in-person instruction since October — well after the evidence was clear that it could be done safely. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Public Schools remain closed with a meager plan to partially open in the waning days of the school year.


It is markedly unfair that the Milwaukee Public Schools are being rewarded with a windfall for locking out their students for over a year while so many other districts, like Waukesha, are given crumbs despite working hard to educate kids. Which district incurred more real cost to educate during a pandemic? Which district chose to educate instead of agitate?


As the Legislature crafts the next state budget, they must consider the federal funds just allocated to school districts and other local governments. They must begin with the recognition that it is utterly implausible that government school districts throughout the state suffered an aggregate $2.2 billion budget deficit caused by the pandemic. The federal dollars being issued are far in excess of any actual damages suffered and some districts are able to use their federal money to fund their wish lists.


Beyond the total budget amount, the nonsensical way in which federal funds were allocated invites the Legislature to reallocate state funding to try to make it fairer. For example, the state budget could cut $500 million from the Milwaukee Public Schools and use the money to fund rural and suburban districts throughout the state. Those districts could then fund initiatives like broadband for rural students, technology upgrades, tutors to help kids who have fallen behind with distance learning, and mental health services. Even after reallocating $500 million from the Milwaukee public school district, they have almost $300 million in surplus federal funds to spend in addition to their normal budget.


State lawmakers have a real opportunity to ensure fairness in funding for all of Wisconsin’s government schools. This is not a time to merely pour money through the same budgetary formulas. This is a time to fight for the education of all of Wisconsin’s kids.


0816, 15 April 2021


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