The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is continuing to draft the state budget. Last week they took up the topic of K-12 school funding. Despite the Republican majority voting to increase spending by $128 million, Governor Tony Evers labeled the increase “paltry” and “an insult” and threatened to veto the entire budget because of it in the same week that he announced his intent to seek re-election.
Every budget season we hear the same ridiculous rhetoric about how Republicans are cutting education and hurting kids despite unending budget increases. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards went so far as to say that proposed budget “will be devastating” to students. While such inflammatory adjectives are exciting for politicos, the facts do not support the hysteria.
According to data from the Department of Public Instruction and the published state budget documents, the proposed spending on K-12 education for the 2022-2023 school year is $1.4 billion more than it was in the 2015-2016 school year when Republicans controlled the legislative and executive branches. That is an increase of 26% over just four budgets.
On a per-pupil basis, the increases are even more stark. For years there has been a steady decline in student enrollment driven by demographic trends. In the 2015-2016 school year there were 867,137 public school students in Wisconsin. This year, there are 826,935 public school students. That is a decline of over 40,000 public school students, but taxpayer spending continues to climb. On a per-student basis, state funding of K-12 education has increased by 32% since the 2015-2016 school year.
Throughout that entire period where state taxpayer spending on K-12 education increased by 26% as enrollment was dropping, Republicans controlled both houses of the state Legislature. For the first two budgets, Wisconsin also had a Republican governor. The fact is that Republicans have lavished the taxpayers’ money on the government education at every opportunity. Even though Democrats always want to spend more, the Republicans have been anything but stingy with education funding.
Government schools are swimming in even more billions of taxpayer dollars this year as they collect multiple rounds of COVID19 relief money spewing out of Washington. Democrats are attempting to claim that Republicans are endangering federal money by not committing more state taxpayer money. They claimed the same thing about federal funds for unemployment payments. Just like the unemployment funding, the federal dollars will flood our schools whether we want it or not. Democrats in Washington and Madison are not going to disappoint one of their strongest constituencies – government teachers.
While spending continues to rise with no consideration for the decline in enrollment, what are taxpayers really getting for their largesse? Even before the pandemic, student performance from our government schools was mediocre and had been steadily eroding for years. The curriculum was being infused with left-wing ideology and the building spree was unending.
But the pandemic really demonstrated how little some of our government schools care for the students and their obligations to the public. When the pandemic first emerged, schools rightfully closed as everyone worked to understand the virus. Within months, however, it became clear that COVID-19 posed almost no risk at all for children. This fact became even clearer when many private schools, and a few government schools, opened their doors to educate kids again as early as last spring. Even now, after over 600,000 COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, only three people under 19 years old have died with COVID-19.
We learned how the virus spreads and who is at most risk, yet far too many government schools remained closed to in-person education while the education and mental health of children deteriorated. Even now, some government schools do not plan to fully open until the next school year and then plan to perpetuate fear with useless and outdated mitigation measures.
When parents and communities needed their government schools the most, far too many of them abandoned their duty. For that, both state and federal taxpayers are rewarding them with billions of additional dollars. It is well past time to rethink our support for government institutions that are failing to meet their duty to the public. To rephrase the oft-quoted Robert Goodloe Harper, “billions for education, but not one cent for tribute.”