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Sen. Moulton Column – The Rest of the Story – 9-14-2016

by Senator Terry Moulton 

After telling listeners about the story behind the story, beloved radio personality Paul Harvey often ended his program with the tag line “And now you know the rest of the story.”  Unfortunately, when it comes to politics, the background stories usually aren’t quite as entertaining as the ones told by Paul Harvey, but they are still important.

Today, our “story” is about state spending on K-12 education and begins around the time of the 2008 financial crisis.  In response to falling tax revenues, most states across the country cut funding for schools.  At the same time, as part of the federal stimulus plan, millions of one-time federal dollars were earmarked for state education spending.  In Wisconsin, this temporarily allowed our state to avoid K-12 cuts, but when the stimulus funding expired, federal education aid to Wisconsin went down by nearly $100 million between 2010 and the next school year.  Federal aid continued dropping, until last year it ended up being $205 million less than in 2010.  That boils down to $240 less in federal aid per student statewide.

Additionally, after years of steady K-12 enrollment growth through the mid-1980’s and 90’s, children of the baby boomers graduated and statewide enrollment dropped. That trend has continued since 2003 and today Wisconsin has 3,000 fewer students than in 2010. Because most state aid is awarded per student, districts with fewer students faced new funding challenges.

In light of these challenges, state Republicans enacted reforms to save districts money and supplement state and local funding for schools.  These reforms included things like requiring state employees to contribute to their health insurance and pensions for the first time and freeing school districts to purchase health insurance from more than one provider.  When you add it all up, it’s estimated that our reforms have saved Wisconsin a total of $5.24 billion – much of those savings went to education.

In addition to our cost-saving reforms, funding from state aid and property tax revenues have gone up every year since 2011. After initial cuts in federal and state aid were offset by the cost-saving reforms we passed in 2011, state aid to schools has actually increased by $407 per student.  Property tax revenues have also increased an average of $132 per student since the 2011-2012 school year.  On top of all that, our most recent state budget included $296 million in new K-12 funding, including an increase of $150 per student last year and $250 per student this year.

Some politicians have ignored all this information and cherry-picked facts and figures to claim the Legislature has turned its back on public schools in Wisconsin since one category of school aid is less now than it was in 2010.  But as we have seen, this isn’t the full story, and not only do these claims leave out the critical roles of declining enrollment, local and federal spending, and our 2011 reforms, but they also entirely ignore another type of school aid from the state, categorical aid.  Categorical aids are targeted funds that schools use to pay for specific items like special education and transporting students.  In fact, the most recent audited data shows that state and local K-12 education funding is up almost $21 million since 2010, to $10.3 billion.

As the next state budget approaches, there are still challenges facing education in Wisconsin. Whether it’s closing the achievement gap or adopting innovations that allow our kids to compete internationally, my colleagues and I in the Legislature will continue to support public education while maintaining the cost-saving reforms that ensure that every dollar spent on K-12 makes a direct impact on our children’s education.  And now you know the rest of the story.