You are browsing the archive for education.

Breaking with Tradition in Wisconsin: Higher Education

12:10 pm in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

Over the next week, the Wisconsin Budget Project will be highlighting a different piece each day from our larger publication Breaking with Tradition: How Wisconsin Lawmakers Have Shortchanged a Legacy of Investment in the State’s Future. You can access the full report on our website.


Wisconsin can create jobs and build a better economy for everyone by investing in our state’s higher education system and increasing the number of people in Wisconsin who have college degrees. Right now, only 26% of Wisconsin adults have a four-year college degree, compared with 29% nationally, according to the Census Bureau. Some neighboring states like Minnesota (32%) and Illinois (31%) also have higher shares of their population with college degrees than Wisconsin.

Despite the growing importance of higher education to economic success, the Legislature has cut investments in our university system over the last four years. This contributed to tuition hikes of 5.5% in 2012 and again in 2013. Since then, tuition has been frozen as the state spends down university system reserve funds.

In 2011, the Legislature eliminated in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who are otherwise qualified Wisconsin students. This move saved very little public money, but made it much harder for undocumented students to attend college. In Wisconsin, in-state undergraduate students pay about $10,000 per year to attend UW-Madison, while out-of-state students – and now undocumented students who grew up in Wisconsin – pay $27,000 per year.

The Legislature also made deep cuts to the technical college system at a time of rising enrollments. Lawmakers reduced support for students by about $45 million a year between 2010 and 2014, based on amounts budgeted for the technical college system in the state’s two-year budget bill.

You can access the rest of the report here.

Breaking with Tradition in Wisconsin: Public Schools

11:58 am in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

Over the next week, the Wisconsin Budget Project will be highlighting a different piece each day from our larger publication Breaking with Tradition: How Wisconsin Lawmakers Have Shortchanged a Legacy of Investment in the State’s Future. You can access the full report on our website.

Public Schools in Wisconsin

Investments in Wisconsin public schools lay a foundation for the state’s economic growth. By ensuring that Wisconsin students have access

to a high quality education, we can create a future workforce that is well-qualified and globally competitive.

Since 2011, Wisconsin has made deep cuts in state support for public schools, while at the same time placing strict limits on the degree to which districts can raise their own money through property taxes. The result is that there are far fewer resources for students in Wisconsin public schools than there were before 2011.

Changes to the state retirement system and collective bargaining rules have allowed districts to cut compensation for teachers and other school employees, and some have done so to avoid scaling back academic programs. Other school districts have been forced to eliminate courses in core subject areas.

Cuts in state support of education among the largest in the country

Wisconsin’s public education cuts are among the deepest in the country. The state budget provided 15% less resources for public schools per student in 2014 than in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research organization. Only six states, mostly in the South and West, made deeper cuts over this period, measured as a percentage change in spending per student. When measured as dollars lost per student, Wisconsin’s cuts to public education were second only to Alabama.13

The budget cuts were more severe for school districts with high numbers of students living in poverty. Those districts had their state support reduced by $703 per student in the 2011-12 school year, while the lowest-poverty districts lost just $319 per student.14 The cuts to poorer districts were larger because high-poverty districts receive a bigger share of their total revenue from the state.

A tight lid on local support for public schools

In addition to making deep cuts to state support for education, lawmakers restricted the degree to which districts can raise property taxes to make up for the loss in state support.

Before 2011, school districts were typically allowed to increase their budgets by between $200 and $300 per student each year. School district budgets are mostly made up of support from the state combined with local property tax revenue. Starting in the 2011-12 school year, the Legislature put strict limits on school district budgets, which limited property tax increases. The Legislature required most school districts to cut their budgets by 5.5% per student in 2012, and has allowed only small increases since then.

Act 10 brought pay cuts for teachers and other school employees

In 2011, lawmakers limited collective bargaining rights for public employees and increased the amount that public employees must contribute to health and retirement benefit costs. The result was that teachers and other school district employees received significant pay cuts, and school districts saved on personnel costs.

For some districts, the pay cuts to teachers were big enough to counteract the reduction in state support. Other districts had to make cuts to core academic subjects to balance their budgets. According to a 2011 survey of school districts:

  • Public school staff was reduced by 5.7% in high-poverty districts in the 2011-12 school year, compared to 1.1% in low-poverty districts;15
  • Eighty-seven percent of students attended districts that cut staff;
  • Sixty-seven percent of students attended a school that reduced the number of teachers in classrooms to make ends meet;
  • Nearly half of students attended districts that cut core academics in the wake of the state budget cuts; and
  • More than 4 out of 10 students attended districts that increased class size.16
  • Budget cuts to schools slowed job growth in Wisconsin. The state lost 3,600 jobs in public K-12 education between 2010 and 2012, according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Expanded resources for private schools

At the same time it was decreasing support for public schools, the Legislature significantly expanded the state’s private school choice program, also known as school vouchers. This program allows students from low- and moderate-income families to attend private school with the state paying the tuition.

Prior to the 2010-11 school year, only students attending Milwaukee Public Schools were eligible for tuition vouchers. The Legislature expanded the voucher program in a number of ways since 2011, including:

  • Removing enrollment limits in Milwaukee and raising the family income threshold for Milwaukee students to 300% of the poverty level – about $72,000 for a family of four;
  • Adding vouchers in the Racine Unified School District, for students with family incomes under 300% of the poverty level;
  • Allowing students in other parts of the state to receive vouchers, if they have family incomes below 185% of the poverty level. For the 2014-15 school year, participation in the rest of the state is capped at 1,000 students. Nearly three-quarters of students who received vouchers from the statewide expansion previously attended private schools.17

The Legislature funds the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in part by cutting the amount of public support for Milwaukee Public Schools.

Lawmakers raised the dollar amount of tuition vouchers to keep up with inflation. This is in marked contrast to the public school system, for which the state is now providing 15% less in support per student than in 2008.

A generous new tax break for private school tuition

The Legislature has given a new tax break to the families of other private school students, separate from the expansion of the private school choice programs.

Parents of students in private school may deduct up to $10,000 in tuition expenses from their income, starting in 2014. The total cost of the new tax break is $30 million a year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, and there are no income limits on who may claim the benefit. On average, private school students come from families with higher incomes than those of public school students. Wisconsin’s tax break for private school tuition is among one of the most generous tax breaks of this type in the country.18


You can access the rest of the report here.
13“Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 20, 2014.
14“Making Matters Worse: School Funding, Achievement Gaps and Poverty under Wisconsin Act 32,” University of Wisconsin ELPA Policy Brief, May 2012.
16“Falling Support for Schools Threatens Wisconsin’s Future,” Wisconsin Budget Project, January 9, 2012.
17“DPI: 73 Percent of Statewide Voucher Students Already Enrolled in Private Schools,” Wisconsin State Journal, October 30, 2013.
18“Wisconsin’s New Private School Tax Break Most Generous in U.S., State Schools Superintendent Says,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 27, 2013.

Faced with Enormous Opportunity Gap, Wisconsin Has Reduced Resources for Schools

2:42 pm in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

For more, go to

Children on swingset on Wisconsin playground

Minority students are being left behind in Wisconsin.

The achievement gap between black students and white students in Wisconsin is the largest in any state, according to a new national report card published this week. This news is especially alarming given that Wisconsin’s cuts to education are among the deepest in the country, leaving Wisconsin schools with limited resources to address the opportunity gap facing students.

The Nation’s Report Card, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, assesses the reading and math skills of 4th graders and 8th graders, and rates students’ performance on a scale. Students scoring above a certain level are deemed to be proficient at math or reading. Results for 2013 were released this week, and can be seen at this site.

Unfortunately, the report card shows that black students in Wisconsin are achieving at very low levels. Across the board, black students in Wisconsin scored worse than black students in almost any other state. Here is how black students in Wisconsin fared on the assessments compared to students in other states:

  • In 4th grade math: 4th worst average score among the states;
  • In 4th grade reading: 2nd worst;
  • In 8th grade math: 3rd worst; and
  • In 8th grade reading: Worst.

The low achievement of black students in Wisconsin is especially jarring given how much better Wisconsin’s white students fare. In fact, the black-white gap in average test scores for Wisconsin students is the largest in the country, for both reading and math skills, at both the 4th grade and the 8th grade levels. Between 40 and 60% of white students in Wisconsin are considered proficient at reading or math, depending on the grade level, but only about 10% of black students are proficient.

This thorough – and thoroughly depressing – article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has additional figures on the gap in reading and math skills, as measured by the report card. (For more information on black/white racial disparities in schools and other contexts, take a look at WCCF’s October 2013 report, “Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County.”)

The very substantial gap in educational achievement between the races in Wisconsin is especially troubling given that our schools have far fewer resources than they did before the recession. Wisconsin schools are already having a difficult time addressing the achievement gap, and deep budget cuts make that effort harder.

Wisconsin’s cuts to education since the beginning of the recession are among the country’s largest, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Wisconsin has cut state investment in K-12 schools by 15.3% since 2008, a deeper cut than 43 other states. In dollar amounts, that translates to Wisconsin spending $1,038 less per student in state aid for K-12 education than it did in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

The irony is that cuts to education were made to save money, but the racial achievement gap in schools could cost much more money in the long term and cause long-term damage to the economy. When people face barriers to achieving their full potential, the cost of the loss of earnings and productivity, added to cost of additional public expenditures, can run into the trillions of dollars at the national level, according to “The Business Case for Racial Equity,” a new report by the Altarum Institute. Closing the education achievement gap would increase the U.S. GDP by two to four percent, according to the report.

Moving toward racial equity can generate significant economic returns, but Wisconsin must make the kinds of investments that enable schools to address the gap. In recent years, policymakers have chosen not to make those investments.

Read the rest of this entry →

Is School Voucher Expansion in Wisconsin a Good Value for the Money?

10:23 am in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

Most children applying to the Wisconsin’s expanded school voucher program already attend private schools without the help of taxpayer dollars, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Wisconsin is spending $10.5 million over the next two years to expand school vouchers statewide.

The 2013-15 state budget expanded the school voucher program, which had previously been limited to Milwaukee and Racine, to school districts across the state. Just over 2,000 students applied to receive vouchers at schools participating in the new program. Sixty-seven percent of the students applying already attend private schools.

Because participation in the voucher expansion outside of Milwaukee and Racine is capped at 500 students for the 2013-14 school year and 1,000 students in 2014-15, a lottery will be used to determine which students will receive vouchers. Students in public school will not receive priority over students already in private schools. Only students from families with incomes of less than 185% of the federal poverty limit are eligible to participate in the statewide voucher expansion.

If the pattern holds and two-thirds of the students who ultimately receive school vouchers were already in private school, that means that the state will spend an estimated $7.0 million over two years to provide vouchers for students who were already in private schools, and $3.5 million for students who were not already in private schools.

If the goal of the school choice program is to open new educational opportunities for students, it is questionable whether the state is accomplishing its objective in this case. It looks like most of the money – $7 million – will be spent to provide vouchers for students who had already found a way to do what the state will now pay for them to do: attend private school. Read the rest of this entry →

A Troubling Trend Continues: A Growing Share of Wisconsin Schoolchildren Are Low-Income

8:57 am in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

The number of Wisconsin children who are from low-income families has climbed for the ninth straight year, according to a new report from the state’s Department of Public Instruction.

In the 2012-13 school year, 42% of Wisconsin children were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. In the 2003-04 school year, just 30% of students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. The share of students qualifying has climbed every year since then. This video shows how the share of low-income schoolchildren has changed over time in each school district.

The criteria for qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches have stayed the same during the time period described. Students in families earning less than 130% of the federal poverty level qualify for free school lunches. For the 2013-12 school year, students from a family of four earning less than about $30,000 would qualify for free lunches. A much smaller number of students in families earning between 130% and 185% of the poverty level qualify for reduced-price lunches.

In Wisconsin’s five largest school districts, more than half the students are from low-income families. Eighty-four percent of the students in Milwaukee Public Schools are from low-income families.

The rising number of low-income students presents challenges for Wisconsin schools. Children from low-income families have poorer educational outcomes and lag their peers in educational achievement. They also are less likely to graduate from high school and become well-educated, healthy members of Wisconsin’s skilled workforce.

New policies proposed by state lawmakers may pose additional challenges to schools that serve largely low-income students. In his budget proposal, Governor Walker has recommended setting aside funding for schools that are rated the highest on DPI’s report card system. Schools that score in the lowest category would receive much less money, with the result that schools with relatively small numbers of students from low-income families would receive the most benefit. For more on that proposal, which is scheduled to be voted on next week by the legislature’s budget committee, read this blog post.

For more information, go to

Wisconsin “Pay for Performance” Plan Shorts Low-Income, Urban Students

12:56 pm in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

In his proposed budget, Governor Walker recommends setting aside a portion of education funding to distribute to schools based on their performance. While this proposal might sound attractive on the surface, it will result in significant funding increases for schools with few low-income students, disabled students, or English language learners. Schools with larger percentages of those students would be allocated a much smaller share of funding.

Gov Scott Walker

Scott Walker's new education plan hurts the poor and disadvantaged.

The Governor is advocating allocating the following amounts for schools over the coming two-year budget period, based on a school report card accountability measure developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction:

  • $24 million for schools that score in the highest category in DPI’s school report cards;
  • $30 million for schools that improve their score on the school report cards by at least three points over the previous year; and
  • $10 million for schools that score in the category of “fails to meet expectations,” if the school submits an improvement plan that is approved by DPI.

The disparities in the student population in the schools, and the higher dollar amount allocated for high-rated schools means that low-income students get relatively little out of this deal. Only one year of school report card data has been published so far, so it’s hard to know what kind of schools would be eligible for the money allocated for schools that improve their score. But we can make some generalizations on how the money would be distributed among the best- and worst-rated schools based using 2011-12 school report cards.

It’s clear that the schools with the highest scores on the school report card educate a very different population than the schools that score the lowest. Students attending the lowest-rated schools are four times as likely as students in high-performing schools to be economically disadvantaged, twice as likely to be disabled, and more than twice as likely to have limited English proficiency.

In Wisconsin, one out of every 9 low-income students attends a struggling school. For students that are not low-income, one out of every 67 students attends a struggling school. Twice as many students are enrolled in the lowest-rated schools than in the highest-rated schools.

High-rated schools are also located in different geographical areas than low-performing schools. About one out of every five high-performing schools is located in a city, while nine out of ten low-performing schools are located in a city.

It’s not likely the Governor’s budget plan will do much to encourage excellence in schools. After all, the highest-rated schools, which get the most money per student, achieved that rating without any monetary incentive from the state. One thing the plan could do, though, is widen the achievement gap between schools in well-off suburban or rural districts and struggling schools in urban areas. By focusing resources on schools that already have already achieved the highest rating, we make equality of opportunity that much harder to achieve in our schools.

The Governor’s plan to reward the highest-rated districts and provide much lower levels of assistance to struggling schools would weaken Wisconsin’s commitment to ensuring that school districts have access to relatively equal resources. The bulk of the money will go to the schools that need it the least, and schools that educate the most challenging students will receive relatively little. Concentrating our resources on the highest-rated schools and giving relatively little to struggling schools is likely to worsen the achievement gap rather than improve it.

For more, go to

Read the rest of this entry →

Expansion of School Vouchers Would Cause Odd Ripple Effects in Nearly All Wisconsin Districts

8:29 am in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

Kid in a playground tunnel

How will new vouchers change Wisconsin schools?

An April 15 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau explains the direct and indirect ways that the Governor’s proposal to expand school vouchers to at least nine new school districts would affect school financing across the state. It includes district–by-district examples of how various scenarios would directly reduce aid for the nine districts, would increase property taxes in those districts, and would actually cause modest increases in aid to the vast majority of districts as the general school aid lost by the nine districts gets redistributed.

As the Wisconsin State Journal noted in a good article about this issue, as much as $8 million could be shifted from the nine new choice districts to 324 districts that would receive additional aid!

Under the Governor’s proposal, up to 500 new vouchers would be provided in 2013-14, followed by 1,000 new vouchers in the second year of the biennial budget. There would be no limit in participation in 2015-16 (which is in the following biennial budget). The total payments for 1,000 vouchers are estimated to be about $7.2 million in 2014-15, and the nine districts would have their aid directly reduced by 38.4% of that amount, or $2.76 million. They will take that hit regardless of whether the new voucher students residing in their district were previously in the public school system or were already in a private school!

But that’s just the beginning of the fiscal impact, which gets more complicated for voucher students who move from the choice district into a private school. That would reduce aid in 2014-15 by roughly $10,000 per voucher student leaving the public school, because of lower pupil counts in those districts and lower spending. And because of the interplay between the aid amounts and the revenue caps for districts, property tax levies would rise by an average of about $2,650 per student leaving the district.

The even more surprising impact is that the secondary reduction in General Aid for the nine districts frees up aid that is redistributed amount all the districts, based on the regular (and rather complicated) aid formula. Milwaukee would get the largest gain, estimated at about $708,000.

The calculations in the LFB memo assume all other variables affecting the aid formula remain the same as in the current school year, because it’s too soon to estimate the normal changes in aid distribution each year. More importantly, the calculations are just for this biennium and don’t project the potential redistribution that could occur in fiscal year 2015-16, when there would be no limit on the number of voucher students. That change is likely to yield far greater cuts in aid for the choice districts and larger ripple effects for other districts.

For more, go to

Read the rest of this entry →