Commission Begins Tackling Wisconsin School Funding

The Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding met for the first time yesterday (Dec. 14), holding an informational public hearing that featured presentations from the staff of the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) as well as the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).  Those presentations led to a lively question and answer session between presenters and Commission members.

The entire hearing was broadcast live on Wisconsin Eye, our state’s version of C-SPAN.  A video recording of the entire hearing should be uploaded to the Wisconsin Eye website and available for viewing on Monday.

Commission Co-Chair, state Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), began the meeting by outlining the basic framework and schedule for the committee’s work.  The goal of the commission, said Kitchens, is to recommend changes to how schools are funded in time to be considered in the next (2019-21) state budget cycle.  (See previous post.)

Kitchens said the commission will likely hold 5 or 6 public hearings or listening sessions at various locations around the state, beginning in late January or early February.  Following those listening sessions, the Commission will hear a presentation from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) about how school funding systems are designed and operate in other states.  After that, the Commission will gather input from its members are begin writing its plan.

State Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), the Commission’s other Co-Chair, suggested there may be more than 5 or 6 listening sessions around the state, noting that “it’s a pretty big state and there are 12 CESAs.”  Sen. Olsen indicated he had spoken with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who along with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) jointly established the Commission, about bringing in nationally recognized experts to assist the Commission and was told legislative leaders would approve funds to do hire such experts if the Commission requests.

Among the topics discussed in depth were the various ways the state provides funding to support public schools, including general and categorical aid to public schools as well as the amounts the state pays under each aid program.  Additional time was spent going over the way the general equalization aid formula and its payment schedule work.  The billion dollars the state pays out annually via the school levy credit and first dollar credit to buy down taxpayers’ property tax bills and how these credits came to be regarded as “state support” for K-12 education was the subject of a separate discussion.

The impact of state-imposed revenue limits on school districts, including the impact of declining enrollment, was also discussed at length.  A related topic, disparities among school districts in their per pupil revenue limit authority (and thus spending authority) was also a focus of the discussion.  It was noted that the low-revenue ceiling was put in the statutes to help address those disparities; however, because no districts currently qualify to use it, this adjustment is no longer available to school districts.

Other topics discussed included how the state’s three voucher programs and the state special needs voucher program are funded as well as how independent charter schools and public school open enrollment are funded.

Both Co-Chairs asked Commission members to “write down things you think the Commission needs to study and send them us so we can get background papers prepared and so we make sure we address those issues.”

Dan Rossmiller, WASB Government Relations Director, is a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

The WASB asks school leaders to please share your thoughts with us about what issues you think the Commission should address and include how they affect your district.  Dan will share those thoughts and concerns with the Co-Chairs.

Watch the Legislative Update Blog for more information about the commission’s schedule of public hearings.  We will post the schedule as soon as it becomes available.