It’s Time to Fix the Way We Pay for Schools

“It’s time to fix a convoluted and out-dated school funding formula.” the School Superintendent testified before the Senate Committee on Education. He continued “The current budget supports wealthy districts more than poor districts, when the poor districts serve students with more challenging needs. What’s fair about that?”

The occasion was a recent hearing on a bill directing the legislature to solve the school funding problems. The bill was sponsored by 59 legislators and did not include any specifics for reform but was more of what I call a “Get R’ Done” bill. It is a first step toward recognizing the problems and making a commitment to solve them.

If public interest is any indication of the need for change, this hearing shouted reform. Several hundred people attended the hearing; so many, that folks were sitting on the floor, stuffed into the hallways and moved to another room with a video hook up.

Parents, teachers, education officials, professors, school nurses, the League of Women Voters, the PTA and pastors all came before the committee in six and half hours of emotional testimony detailing the unfairness of our way of paying for schools.

When it comes to reforming the way we pay for schools, the legislature has studied the issue but has not turned in the final assignment. Several past studies recommended changes but, until now, no real action has been taken. Instead, the legislature tinkers around the edges of the problem.

While the legislature has not completed its work, more and more schools are running into severe financial difficulties. Ninety percent of the state’s school superintendents say the school funding system has to be significantly changed and I have spoken with many of them.

Parents and taxpayers are frustrated by the inequities in the formula and the lack of resources at their schools. An increasing number of schools, including many in our senate district, are running into severe financial difficulties which force teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and reduced course offerings.

Educational opportunities are being limited at the same time schools are trying hard to meet increased accountability through achievement testing.

I testified before the Senate Education Committee about the three major problems that need to be fixed.

First, there is a fundamental disconnect between what drives school district revenue and what drives school costs. When three students leave from class of 20, district revenue is cut by 15 percent – but the cost of teaching a class of 17 is almost the same as teaching a class of 20.

Second, the school funding formula assumes every student costs the same to educate regardless of background, capability or language skills. Finally, the school formula assumes every district has the same cost structure regardless of whether it has 300 or 3000 students, and regardless of whether it covers 15 square miles or 150 square miles.

More than half of the districts in our state are rural. Smaller school districts are more expensive to operate on a per pupil basis because fixed costs are spread over fewer students and transportation costs are much higher.

Questions I received from the committees during my testimony seemed to lead in the direction of consolidation: an easy thing to think of if you live in a suburb of Milwaukee. But many of our local school districts have already consolidated and now cover a greater geographic area – and the geography is so hilly that bus routes look like they follow the outline of a daisy as they head up and back coulee road after coulee road.

There are answers to the concerns raised by the dozens of people who testified at the hearing. For the fundamental problems in school funding to be fixed, reform must accomplish four things – we must reduce our reliance on property taxes; we must recognize that some students cost more to educate than others and that school districts face different costs and we must base funding schools on an adequacy study of real costs in specific circumstances.

This is not impossible. There have been a number of proposals made over the past years. What is missing is the commitment to finish the assignment. We need to make that commitment.