Madison students board bus

Fourth-grade students board a bus at Lincoln Elementary in Madison.

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Most states have slashed funding for their K-12 school systems since the Great Recession, which hit in late 2007 and caused a collapse in tax collections.

But a report released last week indicates Wisconsin has made deeper cuts than most.

According to the paper from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Wisconsin is one of just four states to cut spending by at least $900 per pupil between the 2007-08 and 2012-13 fiscal years.

That hit in inflation-adjusted dollars marks a 13.7 percent decline in per-student spending over the five-year period, with the report indicating only seven states slashed K-12 spending by a higher percentage.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reviewed budget documents from 48 states that “publish education data in a way that allows historic comparisons,” with Indiana and Hawaii being excluded from the review because they don’t do so. Overall, 35 states still are funding K-12 education below pre-recession levels, according to the paper.

“There is no doubt Wisconsin has deprioritized K-12 spending,” says Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, who chairs the state Senate’s Committee on Education and Corrections. “Education took the biggest cuts in the history of the state” over the 2011-13 biennium.

“The cuts counteract and sometimes undermine education reform and more generally hinder the ability of school districts to deliver high-quality education, with long-term negative consequences for the nation’s economic competitiveness,” the report states.

Some, however, say there are significant problems with the review by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Todd Berry, the president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, notes that while the report purports to show changes in per-pupil spending in each state, what it’s really showing is the amount of state aid appropriated per student. He says such numbers are “particularly useless in Wisconsin given the significant role that local property taxes” play in per-pupil funding here.

Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, similarly argues that the center’s report lacks context.

“Yes, the percentage in the report indicates a large decrease in state funding, but Wisconsin still ranks highly in per-pupil spending,” says Mikalsen. “So even if one accepts the report’s numbers, it doesn’t show how Wisconsin still puts more financial resources behind each student than most states.”

According to a report that came out in June from the U.S. Census Bureau, Wisconsin spends a total of $11,364 per pupil on K-12 education from all sources, which ranks 18th among the 50 states and District of Columbia.

And one could argue those investments have generally paid off. Wisconsin boasts the highest high school graduation rate in the nation, and although Wisconsin students’ average ACT scores dropped slightly this year compared to last, state students still ranked second nationally among the 28 states where at least half the students took the standardized test.

But the figures in that most recent U.S. Census Bureau report on per-pupil spending are for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and significant reductions have take place in Wisconsin since then.

State school aid was cut — for the first time in more than 15 years — by 2.9 percent by then-Gov. Jim Doyle and a Democratic-led Legislature in 2009-10, and was slashed by $793 million, or 7.1 percent, by Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican-led Legislature in the current biennial budget.

The state’s 2011-13 budget also for the first time cut the amount of funds local school districts could raise via property taxes, although Republicans counter that most districts were able to offset much of that lost revenue thanks to Act 10, the law that changed collective bargaining for public employees. The law gave districts the ability to require teachers and other district workers to pay more for health and retirement benefits.

Add it all up, and it seems clear that K-12 education in Wisconsin — like in most parts of the country — has taken a financial hit in recent years. And as UW-Madison researcher Carolyn Kelley notes, these state-level cuts hit hardest the districts that need the most help.

Kelley and James Shaw released a report in May that took a look at the 30 highest and 30 lowest poverty districts across the state for 2011-12, and found that the high-poverty districts lost, on average, $702.97 in per-student state aid. The more affluent districts lost less than half that amount, $318.70 per student in state aid.

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“So not only are we disinvesting in education, but the way we’re doing it is impacting the student populations that need support the most,” says Kelley, a professor in the department of educational leadership and policy analysis. “The state gives more money to districts that need it the most, so when we cut the funds the cuts are hitting those districts the hardest. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Lehman’s Senate Committee on Education and Corrections met in late August to get input on how these state cuts have impacted districts, and Lehman says “there is no doubt these cuts are having a negative effect,” especially in smaller, rural districts that are being hit hard by growing fuel and transportation costs, and shrinking enrollments, which results in less state aid.

“Anyone who expects Wisconsin to continue to have very high-quality schools while at the same time squeezing them financially just doesn’t understand the situation,” says Lehman. “There is only so much energy in one teacher’s body and if you start dividing it by greater and greater numbers of kids with greater class sizes and less resources, it just doesn’t work. Over time, that’s going to start showing up in educational achievement, where kids simply aren’t getting as decent of an education.”

There was a sliver of good news on the state finances front Thursday when the Department of Revenue announced that preliminary data indicates tax collections in Wisconsin are up 4.7 percent from the previous year and 0.9 percent, or nearly $127 million, above the estimate in May.

Mikalsen says Nass — who chairs the Assembly’s Colleges and Universities Committee and is a member of the Committee on Education — believes that K-12 education should be “at the front of the line” for any state reinvestment should there be a surplus of state dollars available. The problem, says Mikalsen, is that even though tax collections are up, there are indications that the state’s medical assistance budget could be running a significant deficit that would gobble up any extra funds.

Mikalsen also disputed Lehman’s belief that those on both sides of the political aisle are ready to take a hard look during the 2013-15 budget process at Wisconsin’s state aid school funding formula to make sure those districts that need the money the most are getting enough help.

Although Mikalsen says there will likely be some “tinkering around the edges” with the formula, any significant change is unlikely politically because when formulas are altered, there are winners and losers.

“Changes like this tend not to be fought on a partisan basis, but by those representing urban versus rural or suburban versus urban schools,” says Mikalsen. “So the likelihood of us doing anything major would be hard to do without significant resources added to K-12 education (to keep everyone happy).”

And that, as Mikalsen points out, seems unlikely given the current state of the economy.