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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Report: Wisconsin's growth in K-12 spending lags most other states

bus dropping off students
Emily Files
A bus drops off students at an MPS back-to-school welcome event.

Should Wisconsin increase school spending or decrease taxes? A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, drawing on census data, finds evidence that between 2002 and 2020, state leaders prioritized tax cuts over school funding.

Out of 50 states, Wisconsin used to spend the 11th-highest amount per pupil on K-12 education. In 2020, it ranked in the middle of the pack at 25th.

"Wisconsin is still spending more per pupil in 2020 than they were in 2002, but the amount more they're spending is much lower than the increase the rest of the nation saw," says Policy Forum senior researcher Sara Shaw. "Wisconsin spending rose by 49% over than 18-year time period, compared to the nation rising 75%."

Only Idaho and Indiana had smaller school spending increases than Wisconsin during that time period.

Shaw says some of the lagging funding can be attributed to Act 10, which reduced how much districts paid toward employee benefits.

"Another large factor was a concerted effort across Wisconsin to lower the tax burden on residents and business owners," Shaw explains. "There's virtually no way you can be reducing the proportion of taxes getting collected without affecting how much money is available to fund education."

Wisconsin's tax burden ranking fell from fifth highest in the nation to the 23rd highest between 2002 and 2020.

The state Legislature and governor have the power to determine the majority of school district budgets.

The Legislature usually increases per-pupil revenue limits each year. Revenue limits determine the majority of district budgets, because they dictate how much in general state aid and property tax districts can collect.

In the 2021-23 biennium, the Legislature froze revenue limits, due to the massive amount of federal pandemic aid coming to schools. Shaw says that could mean Wisconsin falls even farther behind other states in school spending.

"The decision to freeze revenue limits mean that we are unlikely to see our ranking increase any more, and if anything might expect to see us fall below 25th highest in the nation," Shaw says.

If districts want more funding beyond their revenue limits, they can go to referendum, which mean they ask voters to allow them to further raise taxes. Referendums have become a common tool for Wisconsin school districts.

Wisconsin's governor and state Legislature will get to work on a new state budget in 2023. Advocates and Gov. Tony Evers have called on lawmakers to use some of the state's record-setting reserves to better fund education.

"The amount of money in state coffers could fund many, many different things," Shaw says. "And we hope there's a robust dialogue on how those moneys will be divvied up to make a difference for our residents."

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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