A legislative committee formed to develop school funding recommendations has released its formal report.
The “Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding” included appointed legislators and education policy representatives, although no classroom educators were part of the panel. Overall, the recommendations consist of changes in the school funding formula and increased funding that WEAC believes would improve resources for our students. As with any recommendations, however, implementation is key – should lawmakers chose to move to enact any of them.
The top priorities of the committee were listed Early Childhood Education, teacher preparation, teacher quality, and meeting the needs of special needs and English language learners. The panel held public hearings this summer, and while residents at those meetings also talked about reigning in spending on Wisconsin’s private school voucher subsidies, the commission did not include recommendations about tax funding of private schools in its recommendations. Read previous WEAC coverage of the commission.
Top-line decisions of the commission included:
- Per-Pupil Adjustment and Per Pupil Aid. Allow inflationary per-pupil adjustments in revenue limits to provide predictability.
- Declining Enrollment. Panelists from all sides of the aisle agreed that declining enrollment was one of the biggest problems facing school funding, hurting rural schools. They supported changing the current adjustment to account for long-term enrollment declines and delete the current prior year base revenue hold harmless adjustment.
- Negative Tertiary Aid. One of the most confusing parts of Wisconsin’s school funding formula, the panel is forwarding three choices with the firm demand to the Legislature to fix it. The options include allowing additional costs generated by a referendum to be excluded from aidable cost for tertiary aid district; set the secondary cost ceiling at 100 percent of the prior year average aidable cost per pupil; and that a secondary aid hold harmless be added to the formula.
- Revenue Limit Adjustments. The panel is not recommending eliminating revenue limits altogether, but is forwarding a list of items they recommend districts have more flexibility on underneath revenue limits. They removed a proposal to fund athletic opportunities outside of revenue limits, but are going forward with areas such as safety upgrades and resource officers, lead testing and abatement, mental health and trauma-informed care, and energy efficiency.
- Special Education Funding. Panelists said they are honoring what they heard from educators and parents at public hearings last summer by forwarding recommendations to address the problems that exist in how the state funds special education. They noted the changes they recommend would benefit all students, because so much of districts’ funding currently is taken from general budgets to cover special education expenses. In short, the commission supports additional funding for special education and offered several options to the Legislature.
- Bilingual/Bicultural Aid. The panel debated several ways to add funding to existing programs that fund schools with high populations of ELL students, from creating a new program to give per-pupil funding to weighting ELL students within the general aid formula – a concept that would need to be implemented carefully. The slate of options, which also includes allowing new schools to enter the existing achievement gap reduction program, were forwarded within the panel’s recommendations. Committee members stressed their recommendations should not open the door for the Legislature to replace existing categorical aid, but that it should be in addition to what exists currently and that districts should be held-harmless to prevent students losing services.
- Gifted and Talented Grants. An increase between $500,000 and $2.5 million per year is recommended.
- High-cost transportation and Sparsity Aid. Several fixes are recommended for the Legislature to debate, including reducing the threshold for districts to qualify and changing the stopgap provision for transportation aid. When it comes to sparsity aid, options for a change in who qualifies for the aid will be sent onto the Legislature.
- Mental Health. Superintendents on the panel were adamant that mental health support is not a competition, and the recommendation scraps competitive grants for mental health. This issue, one of the biggest in the summer public hearings, resulted in recommendations for increases of $5 million per year in mental health collaboration grants and a new categorical aid for mental health.
- School District Consolidation. The commission recommends several measures to provide incentives for districts to consolidate to reduce costs or increase opportunities in smaller rural districts. Some of the measures include allowing districts to continue operating their own elementary and middle school but share high schools and provide an incentive of $150 per pupil for five years for districts that enter into whole grade sharing agreements and declare an intent to explore consolidation.