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By one measure, the increase in aid per student is on the mark – but much of that relied on temporary COVID-relief federal funding.
Wisconsin’s ranking in a national survey did improve from No.18 under Walker to No. 8 under Evers.
- However, those rankings involve a 50-50 mix of performance in higher education and K-12 education — and some of the improvement is due to the higher ed side.
Does school aid make a difference in student performance? Gov. Tony Evers thinks so.
Evers, who was sworn in Jan. 3 has vowed to seek more public school funding in his upcoming budget.
"During my time in office, we've increased per pupil aid by more than $300 per student. Now, our schools have returned to the top 10 in the country after falling to 17 under the previous administration." Evers said in a Dec. 27 Twitter post.
Let’s take a look.
When asked for backup to the claim, the governor’s staff pointed to his two budgets, which in total directed more than an additional $250 million, or about $312 per pupil, to school districts across the state.
Evers’ spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, offered us this breakdown:
In the 2019-21 budget, an increase of about $88 per student — bringing per pupil aid to its highest level ever at $742 per pupil. The 2019-21 budget the governor signed included an increase in special education funding. And through the veto process, he increased per-pupil state categorical aid by nearly $100 million over the two-year period.
In the 2021-23 budget, an additional $110 million from CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) funds provided an additional $133.72 in per pupil aid for every Wisconsin school district.
In August 2022, Evers announced a $75 million allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for school districts and independent charter schools. That amounted to an additional $91.15 per student.
Tally that up, and it amounts to $312.87 more per student.
But that is a break from how many would normally think of per-pupil spending, since it is focused on a narrow part of the overall education spending picture. And it leans heavily on the infusion of COVID-related federal aid, which is not a continuing source of revenue.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, Evers doesn’t appear to be referring to "all state aid provided to school districts on a per-pupil basis" but to the per-pupil "categorical aid" program.
"The 2019-21 budget did increase the amount provided to school districts in that program to $742 per-pupil in the 2018-19 school year and for each year thereafter," an LRB analyst said in response to PolitiFact Wisconsin query. "This rate is statutory and will continue indefinitely unless changed by legislation."
But there is a key wrinkle to the other parts of the funding:
According to the LRB, the CARES funding was not in the 2021-23 budget act. Likewise, the ARPA funding was a one-time payment to school districts and independent charter schools. As such, "the payments are not part of a permanent, statutory program."
So, some of the increased aid Evers has touted will continue indefinitely, while other funds are one-time payments and not permanent. (The $312.87 makes up only part of the average spent per student. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s January 2023 report, the figure in the 2020-21 school year for per pupil aid was $7,537)
Jason Stein, vice president and research director of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, agreed: "It's one-time, though for some districts the overall COVID-19 aid will stretch over several years."
Cudaback argues the aid should not be considered "temporary."
"The additional nearly $100 million from the 2019-21 biennial budget due to Gov. Evers’ strategic, line-item veto would’ve been built into the base budget for the succeeding 2021-23 biennium so that is, by definition, an ongoing, state-supported investment, not ‘temporary’" Cudaback said in an email.
But that part, handled through the normal budget process, is not in dispute. It’s the COVID-related money that is temporary.
On that, Cudaback noted that school districts have extensive time, in some cases several years, to use the COVID related money. But that does not make it permanent.
Finally, Cudaback also noted that the COVID-related spending came exclusively at Evers’ direction. But that, too, is really not in dispute.
In any case, Stein, of the Public Policy Forum, offered an asterisk here.
"The governor was the principal Wisconsin actor who made (the state-based decisions)," Stein said. "That said, the federal relief funds came to Wisconsin because of legislation approved by Congress and Presidents Trump and Biden."
On this part of the claim, Evers’ staff pointed us to the Best States list from U.S. News & World Report, which shows how each of the 50 U.S. states ranks in 77 metrics across eight categories. The methodology shows the numbers are drawn from data over several years.
However, Evers glosses over a key point: The education rankings are based 50% on higher education and 50% on pre-K-12.
The conservative Badger Institute, formerly the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a nonprofit policy research organization, seized on the fact that higher education is part of the ranking equation.
"Team Evers is hyper focused on equating more state spending with better K-12 results," said Jim Bender, government affairs consultant for the group. "Their example does not support that claim."
Higher education: The largest uptick in rankings are in 2-year post-secondary public institution graduation rates from No. 12 in 2017 to No. 7 in 2021. In the overall higher education category, Wisconsin improved from No. 21 in 2017 to No. 15 in 2021.
Preschool through high school: Wisconsin’s "college readiness" rankings dropped from No. 26 in 2017 to No. 32 in 2021; and its high school graduation ranking fell from No. 3 to No. 8. Wisconsin fared better in the math and reading rankings, with math (grade 8) moving from No. 6 to No. 4. Reading rankings (grade 8) rose from No. 8 to No. 6.
So, although Wisconsin’s overall education ranking did jump from No. 18 under Walker to No. 8 under Evers, the underlying rankings were more of a mixed bag.
Evers said "During my time in office, we've increased per pupil aid by more than $300 per student. Now, our schools have returned to the top 10 in the country after falling to 17 under the previous administration."
For the first part of the claim, the $300-plus figure is generally accurate, but Evers glosses past the fact that some of the increase is based on one-time COVID aid that he steered toward schools.
In the second part of the claim, he cites accurate numbers — at least by one measure — but ignores that the ranking involves a 50-50 mix of performance in higher education and pre-K-12 education. And that some of the improvement in ranking is because of the higher ed side.
For a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, our rating is Half True.
Gov. Tony Evers, Twitter, Dec. 27, 2022
Email, Britt Cudaback, Jan. 11 and 27, 2023
Email, Jim Bender, Badger Institute, Jan. 17, 2023
Email, Jason Stein, Wisconsin Policy Forum, Feb. 1, 2023
Email, Legislative Reference Bureau, Feb. 1, 2023.
Department of Public Instruction "Per-pupil aid program"
Legislative Fiscal Bureau "State Aid to School Districts," January 2023
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Tony Evers vows push for abortion access, Medicaid expansion in second term," Jan. 3, 2023.
U.S. News & World Report "Best States 2018: Ranking Performance Throughout All 50 States"
U.S. News & World Report "Best States 2017: Ranking Performance Throughout All 50 states.
U.S. News & World Report "Here's a look at the data behind our rankings," March 9, 2021.
Britannica biography of "Scott Walker"
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Scott Walker's eight years as governor ushered in profound change in Wisconsin," Jan. 7, 2019
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "University of Wisconsin Law School joins exodus of others not participating in U.S. News rankings," Jan. 26, 2023.
News release "Gov. Evers, Superintendent Underly Welcome Kids Back to School, Announce Shared K-12 Priorities for 2023-25 Budget," Sept. 6, 2022
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