Report: Wisconsin School Referenda Rise Above Economy, Politics
A new report shows continued strong support for Wisconsin Public Schools in 2020 elections, with support for school referenda crossing ideological lines.
The Wisconsin Policy Forum report, “Wisconsin School Referenda Rise Above Economy, Politics,” shows in the April and November 2020 elections, voters approved 85.6% of school referenda, the second-highest passage rate since 1993.
“In a time when politics is often nationalized, these referenda results are a reminder that voters can be moved by local issues and concerns,” the report states. “They also may merit the careful attention of state and even national leaders given Wisconsin’s status as a key swing state.”
The spring election occurred just after school districts moved to virtual instruction. In November, some districts were operating in-person instruction, others were virtual and others had a combination of the two. Whatever the model, districts have found themselves strapped with additional technology and safety costs as educators work to keep learning on track.
The approval rate for referenda in any single election has hit 70 percent “just four times in the last 20 years,” the latest report states, with all four coming since 2016.
In both elections, but especially by November, the economy was in the midst of a downturn, but that didn’t stop voters from increasing their own property taxes to help their school districts.
“A notable finding is that the referenda that were put to voters did exceptionally well across the state and even among its hardest-hit communities,” the report states. “The two referenda in Door County districts, for example, both passed despite the heavy blow that COVID-19 has delivered to areas dependent on tourism.”
The report also points out that local support for public schools isn’t necessarily tied to party preferences.
“Support for a Republican presidential candidate may sometimes, but not always, indicate that a community’s voters might not favor a referendum question that calls for higher taxes and greater spending,” the report states. “But it is telling that in certain cases, support for a given school referendum exceeded the vote for the Democratic candidate by a margin of more than 30 percentage points.”
The report suggests that the overwhelming success of local referenda may be a signal to lawmakers when they take up the 2021-23 state budget. Governor Tony Evers excluded the K-12 schools from his request that state agencies submit budgets freezing funding.
“As a challenging state budget approaches, the results suggest voters remain concerned about schools; and that they are willing — in the case of their local district, at least — to take on some additional taxes to fund public K-12 education despite the economic downturn,” the report states. “In a larger sense, the elections show that despite increasing polarization, the electorate may be more unified around some issues of local importance.
“Perhaps that example might serve the state’s leaders as they seek consensus of their own in the Capitol during the difficult months ahead.”