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Unintended Winners of Wis. Aid Reforms Found

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School-finance reforms passed last year by Wisconsin lawmakers in an effort to reduce the gap between wealthy and poor school districts could have the opposite effect.

Officials in the state capital have been scrambling to understand exactly what is happening after an analysis reported in newspapers across the state this month showed that well-to-do suburban districts would be the big winners under the new finance formula.

The analysis by The Associated Press also showed that districts in line to get the biggest increases when the formula takes effect in the 1996-97 school year were represented by the Republicans who pushed the measure through last year.

"Children lose once again in the game of promises vs. favoritism being played with the state's public school aid formula," said Terry Craney, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers' union.

Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson spearheaded the push for the new formula to lower local property taxes. The plan marks an effort to shift two-thirds of Wisconsin's school funding to the state, which had been covering about half of the cost. As the state took over a greater share of school funding, proponents said inequities among school districts would begin to fade.

But after running this year's financial figures through next year's formula, the news bureau found something different. Of the new state money that would be distributed to schools, more of it would go to wealthier, higher-spending districts. The analysis found that $473 million of the new money would go to districts represented by Republicans in the state Assembly, while $136 million would be allocated to districts represented by Democrats.

The AP report concluded that in the 10 districts with the highest property values, funding increases would range from 25 percent to 66 percent. The 10 districts with the lowest values would remain stagnant, losing or gaining less than 1 percent over last year.

More Generous Approach

"We were not surprised; their findings confirmed what we'd been looking at all along," said William J. Vincent, the superintendent of the 840-student Elk Mound Area School District and the chairman of a group of about 100 districts that is suing the state over the finance system. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

"We had never expressed it in partisan terms, but people knew this was skewed toward those districts that had the ability to raise more money and that spent more per pupil," he said.

The state is now in the final year of a two-tier formula that promises a guaranteed amount of money based on the level of a local school district's tax effort. The program boosts districts with a poor tax base to a higher funding level to help them keep pace. The formula also reduces basic state aid to many wealthy districts.

The new formula, scheduled to take effect in the fall, is a more complicated, three-tier system. It continues to boost poor districts in the same way as the current system. It is more generous to affluent districts, however, because it does not allow their basic aid to be cut. In the past the state has provided no aid to its richest districts. Under the new system, state officials said, they will get help.

Mr. Thompson's opponents have used the analysis as a chance to blast the governor, argue for more school funding, and charge that Republicans have been caught red-handed playing political games with schools' money.

Governor Defends Changes

But Mr. Thompson has dismissed allegations of political gamesmanship while standing by the formula.

"The school-funding formula is so complex that masterminding a feat as elaborate as alleged by the AP is beyond belief," John Matthews, Mr. Thompson's chief of staff, said in a letter circulated to newspapers statewide. "The new funding formula is fair. It equitably distributes property-tax relief to all taxpayers."

In fact, Mr. Matthews said, the funding increases anticipated for wealthy districts grew out of a decision by Gov. Thompson to have all Wisconsin districts share in the property-tax relief afforded by the new finance system. He said every district in the state will get more funding under the plan.

Some Republican legislators, however, have said they will take another look at the formula in light of the recent attention.

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