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
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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.