Funding for public education is the single largest area of investment in the Wisconsin state budget. The current state budget spends a total of $14.2 billion on K-12 education. This includes an additional $72.8 million for general school aids, significant increases in per-pupil funding and increases in a variety of programs from sparsity aid to high-cost transportation aid.
The school funding formula, overall, has room for improvement. I was recently appointed to the legislature’s Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform. This bi-partisan commission with members from both houses of the legislature, K-12 leaders and stakeholders met for the first time Dec. 14.
As I prepared for this meeting, I wanted to share my homework with you. Beyond the state budget numbers, there are several other numbers that make a huge impact on school districts throughout our state and are inter-related. Membership counts, open enrollment transfers and school district report card data weave a tapestry of school management and measurement that goes well beyond the arithmetic taught in the classroom.
Membership counts – School district budgets are determined by the membership count (the number of kids) multiplied by the districts’ per pupil revenue limit (the amount of taxes and state aid a district has per student). The per-pupil revenue limit is a state-imposed limit based on historic data and spending. Each district is evaluated individually, which is why there is a range in per-pupil revenue limits throughout the state. This formula has been used in Wisconsin for about 20 years.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “membership” is defined as the average of the resident full-time equivalent students enrolled on the third Friday of September and second Friday of January (including part-time attendance by home-based or private school students), plus the summer school and foster group home FTE.
For example, if a district’s enrollment is 1,200 pupils and its allowable revenue limit per pupil is $10,000 (approximate state average for 2015-2016), the district’s budget is $12 million. Using the same allowable revenue limit per pupil, a district of 700 pupils would have a budget of $7,000,000.
If a student body increases, the budget increases. If a student body decreases, the budget decreases. As a result, the total dollars dedicated to public education in Wisconsin are less important than the actual number of students in the classroom, especially in rural school districts. The membership count is the most important variable in determining a school district’s budget.
To view the membership count and change since last year for school districts in the 17th Senate District, please visit my website.
Open enrollment—The open enrollment program is an inter-district program that allows parents to enroll their children in a public school district other than the one in which they reside. The open enrollment program allows any 4K-12th grade student to apply to a nonresident school district via an application process coordinated by DPI.
Statewide, 55,737 students enrolled in public schools other than their resident school district during the 2015-16 school year. This accounted for $303.2 million transferred between public schools. In the 17th Senate District, 2,066 students enrolled in public school districts other than their resident district. As a result, approximately $1.4 million was transferred to other neighboring public school districts.
During the application process, resident and nonresident school districts can each deny the application for a student to open enroll based on a number of factors, including: availability of space in the school, the transferring student’s disciplinary record or student-teacher ratios. If the request is denied, there is an appeals process with the DPI, but the department is required to affirm the decision of the local district unless they find it was arbitrary or unreasonable.
If the student’s application is accepted, the student is enrolled in the school of his or her choice, the resident school district transfers a set amount of funds to the chosen school district, and the parents are responsible for transportation to and from school.
Under the open enrollment funding formula, a major financial impact to school districts is realized. On one hand, the resident school district does not lose the student in their membership count for enrollment numbers (see above). But on the other hand, the resident district must transfer funds to the nonresident district for each student who is enrolled in another district during open enrollment. For the 2015-16 school year, the state determined amount was $6,639 per student. The 2016-17 amount is $6,748.
While the students and funds transferred to another district do not impact the amount of the overall school district’s budget, they do impact the bottom line of the school district’s budget because they have to “cut a check” to another district for $6,639 per student who transfers to another district.
There are many reasons parents cite for moving their student to another school district. Some families choose to enroll their child in another district for academic and geographic reasons. Others are seeking additional extra-curricular opportunities. Whatever the reasons may be, open enrollment may play a major part in the financial situation for a school district.
To view the 2015-16 open enrollment transfers for school districts in the 17th Senate District, please visit my website.
School district report cards—The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released school report cards for the 2016-17 school year on Nov. 21. The report cards combine data on multiple indicators for multiple years across four priority areas: student achievement, growth, closing gaps and on-track and post-secondary success. In addition, given the impact on student success, the report cards also measure chronic absenteeism and dropout rates. Many parents use these report cards to assess their child’s opportunities at their local and neighboring school districts.
To view the 2016-17 school report card data for school districts in the 17th Senate District, please visit my website.
When we combine all of this data and take a look at our school districts in the 17th Senate District, we can identify trends, impacts and opportunities. Most of our schools are performing very well, but declining enrollment due to a number of cultural factors and parent decisions impact student data, which in turn impacts school finances.
As your state Senator, I will continue to monitor this data, among other measurements and reports, as a part of my overall strategy to support and understand our local schools.
Republican Howard Marklein, Spring Green, represents the 17th state Senate District.