Speaking Budgeting: A Look at the Proposed Wisconsin Education Budget

Every I Fall I teach budgeting and I an unashamed to say it is by favorite course (well methods is pretty great too). Budgets are the way in which a public executive communicates his or her policy goals, asserts control over the bureaucracy, and communicates with citizens. Budgets are also intimidating, but learning to navigate them is an essential skill for any public employee. Why? If you can speak budget you know where the money is coming from, and you know where the money is going. You also know the executive’s priorities and expectations. And you know all of this firsthand, no translation required. In fact, you will probably be the one translating for others, which is a powerful position to be in. Ok, enough about the virtues of budgeting, onto the real thing.

Last week Governor Scott Walker released his executive budget (you can read all 644 pages of it on the Department of Administration website) and there is quite a lot to discuss. But given my research interests I will focus on the Public Instruction (DPI) budget. I find in Wisconsin the DPI budget is the most interesting due its size, and the frequent ideological differences between its head and the Governor. Here are the specific things worth mentioning:

Increasing per-pupil aid.  To paraphrase Joe Biden, this is a big deal. School districts across Wisconsin are experiencing fiscal stress, and additional aid districts can actually spend is a welcome change.

Does equity matter? The additional per-pupil aid does not go through the equalization aid formula. Funding increases this way is a developing trend, and though it sounds boring (and an argument can be made that funding increases this way is simpler) I worry about equity. The goal of school finance in Wisconsin has long been to equalize taxing capacity. Increasing funding outside the aid formula prioritizes equal increases over equitable increases.

Tying aid to increased health care contributions. Requiring districts be in “compliance” with Act 10 as a condition of increasing aid is just strange. What the Governor is actually proposing is that districts not previously required to raise employee healthcare contributions to 12 percent do so. It is not like these districts are currently violating the law. As I told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “[P]lacing new mandates limiting the ability for school districts to make compensation decisions runs counter to the management goals of Act 10.”

Performance funding for absenteeism. This is not getting much attention, but there is a potential $50,000 of funding for schools that reduce absenteeism. This reads like something that will not make the final cut, but it is an interesting idea that shows growing concern for the negative impact of absenteeism.

Lifetime teaching licenses. Another interesting one. I certainly know teachers who complain about the usefulness of the renewal process, but this is just anecdote. The proposal puts a lot of faith in the state’s educator effectiveness system. Doubt this makes it through.

“Milwaukee Education Performance Funding.” A potential $100 per-pupil in schools that do well on the state report card. I like that all publicly funded Milwaukee schools are eligible, it reflects the reality that public education in Milwaukee is actually a fragmented network of service providers (that is a shameless plug for my book project, stay tuned). I like the idea of something positive for Milwaukee schools rather than sanctions.

Per-pupil funding increases for Choice. It seems logical to me that publicly funded students across the spectrum get the same increase. It is a necessary step towards normalizing the Milwaukee school network.

“Private School Fiscal Agent.” Seems the folks complaining about MPS being the fiscal agent for federal funding for private schools are being heard. This is contingent on a federal waiver and I do not see it happening (and really do not think it is a good idea).

“School Report Card Reforms.” More reporting for schools is not a bad thing. But I hope tinkering with the report card is not a regular occurrence, there is value to stable indicators.

“School District Flexibilities.” This is a fascinating section (page 445). Districts would longer have to meet minimal hours of instruction requirements, hold monthly school board meetings, and post the time and date of their annual school board meetings. Clearly this is an effort to reduce regulations perceived as onerous, but I bet the minimal hours of instruction proposal will get people fired up. I also feel school boards provide a valuable function and reflexively do not like the idea of not requiring them to meet….but perhaps there is a rationale here of which I am not aware.

There is more in the DPI budget of course, but these are the items that caught my eye. As Alan Borsuk wrote on Sunday, it is a fairly tame budget request. But I do think it reflects subtle changes in education values in our state. There is less focus on equity, more normalization of school choice, more erosion of local control (at least when it comes to employee compensation), and increased emphasis on outputs over inputs.

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