When Wisconsin’s monthly unemployment numbers for August took another bad turn, both major political parties scrambled to affix blame.
Republican Governor Scott Walker pointed at "problems in the national economy" in his weekly radio address on Sept. 22, 2011.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, fingered the Republican agenda of budget cuts and tax breaks for businesses for failing to create family supporting jobs.
Miller tucked another element -- the impact on education -- into the Democrats’ weekly radio address the same day: "While voting for over $2.3 billion in tax giveaways, Republicans enacted the most drastic cuts to K-12 public schools of any state in the nation."
We’ve already checked a variation of the tax-break claim -- the liberal group One Wisconsin Now said that Walker’s budget "includes tax breaks for corporations and the rich that will cost the state of Wisconsin taxpayers $2.3 billion over the next decade."
The $2.3 billion figure is indeed the projected revenue loss, but the loss is from separate GOP-sponsored legislation as well as the budget. We rated that statement Half True. Miller, though, doesn't mention the 10-year period, so that takes the first part of his statement even more off the mark.
But what about the education-related cuts?
Were they the "most drastic cuts to K-12 public schools of any state in the nation"? And by what measure?
Miller pointed us to a September 2011 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that compared state-by-state budget cuts.
He specifically noted media coverage of the study in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Madison’s Capital Times and the Wisconsin Radio Network -- all of which emphasized the #1 ranking in either a headline or first paragraph.
Let’s take a deeper look.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, obtained budget data from 24 states -- not all 50 -- in conducting what experts told us was the only study that has attempted to quantify the recession-era cutbacks by state governments in aid to local schools.
The group analyzed state general education funding that is sent to local schools using formulas and ranked states by two measures.
It did not attempt to catalog how much individual school districts might have saved in costs due to limits on collective bargaining included in Walker’s budget-repair bill. But, that is potentially important. The state money to local schools was cut, but many districts were able to use the new freedom from union contracts to cut their own budgets to recover some or even all of the lost state aid. That limited the overall negative impact on the classroom.
The study is ongoing, as the group is trying to gather information from the remaining 26 states. For those states, the information was not yet available or there were other obstacles to crunching the numbers, said Phil Oliff, a policy analyst who co-authored the study.
The study found that Wisconsin had plenty of company in cutting aid for 2011-12 over the previous year -- 21 of the 24 states have cut per-student funding to some degree.
The study noted: "Some of the deepest reductions to K-12 formula funding since the onset of the recession have occurred in the past year, as federal aid intended to sustain state education spending has expired, rainy day funds have been exhausted, and states have resisted raising additional taxes to offset the need for cuts."
It ranked Wisconsin’s cuts as third deepest in percent change in spending per student (10.0%). The study highlighted this finding: "Of the states surveyed, the three states that reduced per student funding the most since last year are Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin."
So, it’s a poor ranking, to be sure. But that’s not Number 1.
By another measure, Wisconsin was Number 1 -- the dollar change per student (-$635). This was covered in a chart in the study and that is what drew the headlines -- and Miller’s attention.
Oliff told us that both measures were useful, just from different perspectives. A prominent Wisconsin education funding researcher who reviewed the group’s numbers, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Andrew Reschovsky, agreed both measures are important.
"The bottom line is Wisconsin has made very deep cuts, either year over year or compared to pre-recession (levels)," Oliff told us. "Some of the deepest cuts in the nation."
We asked Reschovsky how he would characterize Wisconsin’s rankings based on the study.
"I'd be comfortable saying that among the 24 states they studied, and focusing only on aid, Wisconsin has cut state aid more dramatically than most of those other states," Reschovsky said.
That's some of the deepest cuts, and deeper than most other states, but not the deepest.
The Journal Sentinel’s story on Sept. 6, 2011 led with "Wisconsin leads the country so far this year in cuts to state aid for schools" -- but immediately noted the study was limited to 24 states. The story also noted the #3 ranking on the other measure. The headline was less specific: "Wisconsin ranks high in school aid cuts."
The Capital Times piece the same day led with the dollar change (#1) under this headline: "Wisconsin’s cuts to school aid steepest of 24 states studied."
The next day, the Wisconsin Radio Network’s website said: "Wisconsin K-12 funding cuts lead the nation."
The WRN story led off: "Wisconsin’s cuts to school aid are the deepest among 24 states where budget information is available, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities."
Like the others, it also prominently noted the limits of the study -- 26 states are not included.
We asked Miller’s office how he could say the cuts were the most drastic "of any state" when the study looked at only 24 states.
Miller spokesman Michael Browne told us that by saying "Republicans enacted" the deepest cuts, Miller had provided listeners with the appropriate context. "Enacted" signals that Miller was talking about the deepest cuts just among those states that had acted, Browne argued.
But that doesn’t square with why the study was limited to 24 states.
Some others have acted, but the data is just not available or has not been analyzed. And it’s reasonable to think some or many have cut education funding, said Oliff.
Miller took to the airwaves to say that "Republicans enacted the most drastic cuts to K-12 public schools of any state in the nation." He cited media reports concerning a study by a liberal think tank.
Researchers we consulted poked no holes in the study, but it only covered about half the states. And while Wisconsin did indeed lead in cuts by one measure, it was third according to a second measure that is highlighted in the group’s report.
There’s an element of truth in Miller’s claim, but he pushed past the limits of the study. We rate the statement Mostly False.