Just as the fight over Governor Scott Walkers budget repair bill centered on changes to collective bargaining for public employees, much of the attention given to his budget focuses on his cuts to school district aid for K-12 funding. The sound bites from the budget hearings have included a few supportive ones, but the majority of comments about a reduction in aid for K-12 have been quite negative, and at times bordered on hysterical.
If I recall correctly, the West Allis hearing featured a woman speaker who challenged supporters of the Governor's budget to look in her daughter's eyes and explain to her what was happening, or something to that effect. OK, here goes.
In Wisconsin we spent about $10 billion dollars on education in 2007-2008 according to the US Department of Education. That works out to be around $10,500 for every student in the state. There are almost 900,000 students total.
Some of the money to run the schools in Wisconsin comes from the state government. The other way that schools raise money is through local property taxes. The Governor is opposed to tax increases, generally speaking, so he is also proposing to limit the amount that school districts can increase taxes to offset his aid cuts.
Tony Evers is the director of schools in Wisconsin. He says the Governor's proposal will reduce total school spending by a little less than $1 billion dollars per year between the aid cut and the tax limit. This is about 10%. To put it another way, the spending per student could go down from around $10,500 to $9,500.
The Governor has also proposed to increase the amount that teachers pay toward their pension and health insurance to help offset some of the reduced aid from the state. The Governor likes to highlight this aspect of his plan, but it most likely won't offset the entire amount of the cuts. I believe I heard Mr. Evers on Wisconsin public radio today saying this change could offset as much as 40-60% of the cuts. If so, we would be back to only a 5% reduction in education spending, rather than 10%.
Whether it's 5% or 10% in the end, if you listen to some of the Governor's critics this relatively small cut in spending spells the end of education in Wisconsin and we might as well just all give up. As for me, I'm skeptical cuts of this size could really change public schools that much. Even if per student spending went all the way down to $9,500, this is still much more than it was in the late 1990's. It's probably more than was spent per student when your mom and dad went to school here in Wisconsin.
The student/teacher ratio here in Wisconsin is about 15 students for every teacher. I suspect your class may have more than 15 students because this ratio probably includes teachers who specialize in small groups of students that need extra help. Regardless, a ratio of 15 is right at the national average. A political ad that is running on TV here in Green Bay alleges that the Governor's cuts to education could increase class size to "35 to 40 kids in a class." Again, this sound like it is intended to scare people into opposing the governor. It's too bad that so many people will be convinced by an accusation that is almost certainly untrue.
What about his increased in spending on roads you say? I know, you can't drive so this doesn't affect you. I agree that the Governor should concentrate his efforts on reducing spending wherever possible, so maybe this is something that should be looked at very carefully by voters and the legislature.
When you step back and take a look at the big picture, you will see a Governor that has proposed the first budget in a long time that addresses the gap between spending and revenues in this state. That goes for governor's of both parties. Yes it is true that education funding will be reduced by the Governor's proposal, but this does not automatically mean that the quality of the education you receive will go down dollar for dollar. Ultimately, the quality of the education you receive will likely be tied to where you live. That is the case throughout the United States and is not likely going to change as a result of a single state budget.
So in the end we may spend a few less dollars on your education now, but we will still spend quite a lot, and the education you receive will be quite good. In exchange you will get a state budget that starts to put Wisconsin on sounder financial footing. That may seem unimportant now, but it may make the difference between a prosperous state and a bankrupt one by the time you are older and are starting to pay taxes. Doing this now is important to Wisconsin's future, which, after all, is your future too.