Policy & Politics: A Column On State Budget Issues – Part One
By Joe Plouff
When discussing an 1800 page Wisconsin state budget proposal that includes a great deal of potential state policy and billions in tax dollars, it is not a bad idea to slow down, take a deep breath and consider the ramifications thoughtfully. Historically the state budget process is designed to allow enough time for the legislature, public and special interest groups to provide opinion and feedback.
Governor Walker unveiled his budget proposal in February and much has already been written. There will be a lot more written before the budget moves to finalization. I will be adding some ink to the discussion in a series of columns discussing the budget as well. It is my intent to provide information on topics in the budget that may not be the big headline grabbing issues but yet do have an impact on the lives of Wisconsinites. A version of this column originally appeared in the Hay River Review.
The largest part of each state budget is the funding of our K-12 schools. Our schools are funded through a number of different revenue sources with the largest being the state’s general school aid. That source of revenue comes from corporate and personal income tax as well as other sources. And of course, citizens pay local property taxes to their own local schools as well.
All renters and homeowners in Wisconsin pay property taxes. We pay our property taxes and that revenue is distributed to each school district, county, township, city, village and technical college serving the properties we rent or own.
It is the school funding mechanism within the current state budget that is the focus of this column. More specifically, it is the money the state sends to the states 423 local school districts through the state budget that is of particular interest. That general school aid money, when added to the local property tax revenue, allows schools to operate their programs. Without that general school aid, our local property taxes would be extraordinarily high. A major thing to remember is that either our local property tax goes up when the state’s funding commitment goes down, or, our educational programs are cut. The state will allow cuts to state aid being replaced, dollar for dollar by local property taxes without referendum in some instances.
Traditionally, the state sends an allocation of general aid monies to each school district based on how many students are officially enrolled in that district. A rather complicated system of aid formulas are implemented to, in theory, make certain all of our schools are “as nearly uniform as practicable” as our state constitution requires.
There is also a rather new addition to the funding mechanism that reaches into every classroom in each of our 423 public school districts. It is the twenty-three designated Independent Charter Schools (ICS) in the state, now located only in Milwaukee and Racine. These schools are funded first. They have the first draw of state aid money before any of the 423 public school districts get a dime. Unlike the 423 public school districts, the Independent Charter Schools do not have a local property tax base as a revenue source. The state legislature has made it public policy to pay for these charter schools, in effect providing the charters with both state aid and the funds local property taxes might have contributed if the student was in a public school system.
The twenty-three Independent Charter Schools now in operation have a combined enrollment of 8,400 students. For each of the students enrolled, an ICS is provided $8,074.00 in state aid. As a result, the pot of money set aside for general school aid for each and every public school district has been reduced by 1.4% or, $68,637,500.00 statewide.