Do not adjust your computer screen. You have not accidentally run across the One Wisconsin Now website, or even the Capital Times editorial page. (If you were the guy that reads Cap Times editorials, you’d probably have the munchies and have lost interest by now, anyway. Wait – is Matlock on?)
Last week, legislative Democrats took a hit on the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page over a reduction in state aid for Madison area school districts. The State Journal argued these points:
1. School districts were told that none of them were going to get a cut of more than 10% from the state, and yet some districts are getting cuts of up to 15%.
2. Legislators were too busy packing the budget with policy items to realize that the cut would be much greater.
Over the weekend, Democrat State Senator Mark Miller took to the airwaves to explain what happened. Here is Miller’s (albeit clumsy) explanation of why Madison area districts are taking a big hit in this budget, from the “Here and Now” show:
Now, the pages of this blog have not been very friendly to Miller and his cohorts during the budget process. But on this one, I think he’s getting a bad rap – and explaining why helps illustrate the constant struggle the state has with the school finance formula.
(CAUTION: What follows is an attempt at explaining school aids, and may be dreadfully boring. If it gets too bad, feel free to go over and read the Dogs With Mustaches blog and come back in 15 minutes.)
Let’s look at the purpose of the school aid equalization formula. As its name suggests, it exists to “equalize” the relative wealth of districts. The theory behind the formula is that kids in property poor districts should have access to the same resources as kids in property rich districts (like Madison), even if the local district doesn’t have the same property values on which to draw. Thus (and this is a substantial generalization), the state grants more money to property poor districts and less money to property rich districts.
(For a full explanation of the complexities of the school aid formula, take about four caffeine pills and read this.)
For example, take a school district like Peshtigo, with per pupil property values of $275,466. Peshtigo receives about 81.6% of their budget from the state. On the other end of the scale, the Madison Metropolitan School District boasts property values of $844,000 per student, and thus receive about 41.25% of their budget in state aid. (Since you were wondering, the Geneva J4 school district, with per pupil property values of $3.3 million, receive the lowest in state aid, at 16.9%. Beloit gets 85.1% of their budget paid for by the state, since apparently you get a free abandoned warehouse there with every purchase of a happy meal.)
For years, this attempt at “equalizing” school aids (and therefore educational opportunities, if you believe the two are related), has angered school districts across the state. Actually, the mere fact that it seems to hack off school districts uniformly may be evidence that it is working. For the most part, school board members don’t really understand how the formula works – all they know is that it is keeping them from their rightful (read: larger) share of the state equalization aid pie. Many school districts argue that while their property values may be artificially high, it isn’t a good indicator of the wealth in their district – incomes may still be low, and thus they should get more aid. (I will address this in a future column. I expect you to wait right there at your keyboard for me to post it.)
Naturally, these school districts go to their editorial boards to complain about the formula. So we get dozens of columns per year urging changes in the formula, without any actual recommendations on how to make it better. Under any scenario of changing the way the school district keg is poured, there will be winners and losers. So who should win more? And who should lose more? These are the questions newspapers never seem to want to answer. And state lawmakers want to answer them even less, which is why the current aid formula has stood the test of time.
But back to the original point – the State Journal seems to want changes to the school aid formula. They think it’s unfair that Madison area districts are taking a larger cut, relative to other school districts. But why is that the case?
Let’s go back to the school aid formula. Local districts around the state have been rapidly losing property value as the economy has cratered. Madison property values, on the other hand, have held up pretty well. We have seen what this does to the formula – as other districts look poorer and Madison treads water, Madison loses more aid relative to the rest of the state. The formula rewards districts that aren’t holding their property values, and Madison takes the hit.
So how exactly would the State Journal rectify this situation? There seem to be two options – lower Madison’s property values (something state government can’t do), or rig the school aid formula to give more money to a relatively rich district. Wouldn’t that be the same type of pork that the State Journal (and this blog) has decried in this budget? How well do they think it would go over if Joint Finance Co-Chairs Mark Miller and Mark Pocan decided to doctor the formula in favor of a wealthy district? Think the other 425 districts would have something to say about that?
The State Journal may be right in its criticism of legislative leaders for telling school districts that none would take a cut of more than 10%. Perhaps the newer property value numbers weren’t available (Miller says they weren’t.) Making such a proclamation would be pretty wrongheaded, as nobody really knows what the numbers are even after the budget is signed. But having the updated numbers wouldn’t have changed the current aid numbers by a cent – it merely would have managed expectations more reasonably.
This budget is an atrocious document, filled with job-killing taxes and nonfiscal special interest pork. But Democrats should get a pass for not reaching into the school aid cookie jar to rig the system for their own benefit. (UPDATE: As I was writing this, State Senator Kathleen Vinehout posted a column explaining how she would “fix” the state funding formula: Give her districts more money. The column might as well have been titled “How they Bought My Budget Vote, by Kathleen Vinehout.”)
Just ask this guy: