The governor of Wisconsin last week threaded a needle through a tiny legal loophole to enshrine annual school funding increases in law for the next four centuries. That’s right—centuries, not years.
Schools in Wisconsin will see their base funding from the state grow by $325 per student each year until the year 2425 under the newly passed two-year state budget.
Advocates in the state had been seeking an increase to the state’s base per-pupil funding after failing to get one for public schools during the last legislative session in 2021. But experts and advocates caution that this move is neither as permanent nor as transformative for schools as it might seem on the surface.
Gov. Tony Evers used the unusually broad veto power afforded to him by the Wisconsin constitution to alter a part of the budget that provided an annual increase in base aid to districts of $325 per student for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years. The governor struck the “20” and the hyphen from “2024-25,” setting the year 2425 as the new end date for the annual increases. Republicans currently lack a veto-proof majority in the state assembly, so lawmakers likely won’t be able to overturn the action.
State lawmakers have, however, threatened to sue Evers, a Democrat, over what they characterize as misuse of executive power. Plus, there’s nothing stopping a future governor or legislature from deciding to roll back the mandatory increases.
And these increases will hardly cover the expenses schools will face in the coming years, said David Martinez, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of South Carolina who has conducted extensive research on school finance.
Utility bills, insurance premiums, construction costs, and wages and benefits are all on the rise, and inflation will continue to drive up costs even if services don’t change.
“What the governor has effectively put into place is to provide schools about $1.81 per student per day for the [year’s] 180 school days,” Martinez said. “Even at the rate of inflation that we’ve seen over the last couple years, that $1.81 is not going to close the gap between the needs that exist in schools already and the needs that are going to occur as we move into the future.”
School funding challenges have a long, circuitous history
Advocates in Wisconsin and across the country took notice of Evers’ move and praised his robust support for public education. But the challenges of school funding are always more complicated than what a single stroke of the proverbial pen can resolve.
“School districts crave predictability,” said Mike Barry, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Business Officers and a former school finance administrator in several Wisconsin districts, including Madison. “Anything that would help lower the tempers around school funding might prove to be beneficial for everybody.”
On its face, Evers’ move institutes predictability going forward and removes school funding increases as a topic of legislative debate.
According to Barry, predictability has not been a feature of school funding in Wisconsin since the Great Recession of the late aughts. Before that, the state’s education funding formula included a Consumer Price Index factor that prompted automatic increases to keep up with the rising cost of goods and services. But in 2009, as an austerity measure, then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, eliminated that factor from the formula.
“Sometimes big decisions have big consequences,” Barry said. “Ever since then, there is no guaranteed increase of even a penny in the revenue limit formula for Wisconsin schools.”
The legislature meets every two years to decide how much of a bump school funding should get. In several legislative sessions since then, including the most recently completed one in 2021, lawmakers have decided against any increase at all.
This time around, lawmakers and the governor agreed on a $325 increase per student for each of the next two years, with slightly more thrown in for some rural districts.
It marked a contrast with other states where efforts to boost school funding have run into roadblocks during the most recent legislative sessions. In Texas, for instance, lawmakers wrapped for the summer without agreeing to any increases in base aid for school districts. Oklahoma school districts have been in the dark about how a recently approved plan to increase some teachers’ salaries will be carried out. Mississippi lawmakers approved $100 million in additional funding for school districts outside the state’s funding formula, but the education agency have struggled since then to figure out how to distribute the money.
Meanwhile, states like Arkansas and Utah paired modest increases for public school budgets with major investments in private school choice initiatives like vouchers and education savings accounts. Wisconsin took a similar approach alongside its investment in public schools, expanding private school vouchers by up to almost $3,000 per student.
Martinez said he sees such efforts pairing public school funding increases with private school choice expansions as “nefarious” diversions from the critical task of strengthening public schools.
“Ultimately a lot of challenges in the system—whether it is about testing or grades or graduation, learning loss, learning gaps, achievement gaps—a lot of these things that we discuss can be mediated by very strong budgets and strong increases in school funding,” Martinez said.