Wisconsin school funding formula under scrutiny

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Leaders of a bipartisan task force tackling how to improve Wisconsin’s complex, much-derided school aid formulas said Thursday they are dedicated to ensuring their recommendations don’t “gather dust,” but understand the challenges of making significant change.

Numerous similar studies have come and gone with no wholesale revision of the intricate formulas that determine how much money goes to the state’s public, charter and private voucher schools.

But leaders of the latest task force, which includes lawmakers, private and public school leaders, academics and others, said this one will be different because there’s buy-in from Republican leaders of the state Senate and Assembly.

“My number one goal is to not write something that gathers dust,” said state Sen. Luther Olsen, co-chair of the task force and leader of the Senate’s Education Committee. “I’ve been around this circus before and a lot of times we do something and it just sits around and gathers dust.”

Still, the political and fiscal challenges are significant.

The biggest hurdle, Olsen said, will be finding the money necessary to ensure no schools lose under any changes that are recommended. That has proven to be an insurmountable challenge in the past.

“If we do a printout and there’s a district that loses, it’s almost impossible to pass anything,” Olsen said. “At the same time, if you don’t have that, it costs money and that becomes a challenge.”

Whatever the panel recommends will cost money, said the other co-chair Rep. Joel Kitchens, of Sturgeon Bay.

“If half the districts in the state lose on this, we’re never going to get it passed,” he said.

The numbers are huge. About 41 percent of the state’s annual $16.9 billion general fund budget goes to aid to schools or payments to reduce local property taxes that are used to fund schools. Aid to schools is the single largest expense in the state budget. Any significant change could result in large swings in funding for any particular district.

Complaints about how the state funds schools come both from large, urban schools with diverse populations in Milwaukee and Madison and smaller, rural districts with declining enrollments. An increase in reliance on local referendum votes to increase property taxes to help meet costs in the face of levy limits has also driven a desire to take a serious look at the funding formula.

All of those complaints, and others, will be a part of what the task force looks at over the next year, its co-chairs said. They plan to hold hearings across the state and issue recommendations in about a year, in time for consideration in the next state budget to be introduced in 2019.

Both Olsen and Kitchens said they had no preconceived notions about what the recommendations will be. But Olsen was keeping his expectations of any change actually happening well in check.

“We want to do what we believe is the right thing to do,” he said. “If it happens it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t.”