Just what is the state of funding for public education in Wisconsin?
According to Gov. Tony Evers, it’s bad enough for residents to be voting to voluntarily raise their own taxes to fully fund schools.
"More than a million Wisconsinites have voted to raise their own property taxes because Republicans have failed to fully fund our public schools for the past eight years," Evers tweeted on April 3, 2019.
Last year was a record year for school referendums, as voters approved more than $2 billion in additional school spending.
But have 1 million residents really voted to raise their own taxes through referendums? And is it reasonable to attribute that decision to Republicans failing to "fully fund" schools?
Let’s study up.
Simply put, a referendum is a vote on a specific issue.
Local school districts can propose referendums to replace or upgrade a building that is aging or becoming too small, or to approve spending for ongoing budgetary expenses beyond what is otherwise allowed.
And these have spiked in recent years.
Wisconsin voters approved $1.8 billion in referendums in 2016, set a record of more than $2 billion in 2018 and voted for another $783 million in spring of 2019. Overall, voters across the state favored 45 of the 60 referendums in the 2019 spring election, a 75% approval rate.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor was referring to the number of voters who supported referendums since 2012.
That data, gathered by the state Department of Public Instruction, includes both referendums for exceeding spending caps and building construction or upgrades.
About 2 million voters supported additional spending of some kind since 2012 — 1.1 million backed taking on debt for buildings, and more than 900,000 supported additional money for ongoing expenses.
In our view, the ongoing expenses number is more important. It represents borrowing for ongoing expenses, not capital projects such as buildings that aren’t as directly related to funding levels. Still, using just the second measure, Evers’ 1 million number is in the ballpark.
A record number of referendums have been approved with the state under Republican control in recent years, but is it fair to connect those two facts?
We’ll get back to Evers’ claim, but first a little primer on school funding.
Local school districts are subject to state-mandated caps that were instituted by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. The cap — called a revenue limit — restricts how much money the district is able to spend per pupil. For 2018-’19, that limit was an average of $10,677 per pupil statewide.
The revenue limit includes both money brought in through local property taxes and general school aids the state provides to local districts.
The revenue limit was initially set to go up with inflation, but over time that changed. The increases slowed under Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle, and the limit was frozen starting in 2015-’16 under Republican Gov. Scott Walker. On a statewide basis, it has been frozen since.
The state has steadily increased general school aids in recent years -- from $4.49 billion in 2015 to $4.6 billion in 2017 and $4.67 billion in 2019, according to Wisconsin Policy Forum. But since the cap hasn’t changed, that additional money simply provided tax relief by lowering the amount of property taxes districts were allowed to levy. It didn’t increase per-pupil spending.
So districts that wanted to spend beyond the revenue limit needed voters to approve it in a referendum.
Which brings us to the claim from Evers, who was the longtime state schools superintendent before being elected governor.
Evers spokeswoman Baldauff said the "fully fund" part of the tweet references the caps Republicans have placed on school spending.
"At a minimum, fully funding our schools means allowing school spending to keep pace with inflation, with the state contributing a fair share of those costs," Baldauff said. "While the previous administration eventually restored some of the funding they cut (state support of costs), they held spending relatively flat. Districts were forced to use referenda, their only tool available, to protect educational programming, retain staff, and keep the lights on."
So Evers draws a direct line from funding levels to referendum success.
But many factors can affect whether voters support a referendum.
Jason Stein, research director for Wisconsin Policy Forum, said other types of state aid and the health of the economy both can factor into voters’ willingness to support a referendum. For example, per pupil aid -- a category of state school funding that isn’t subject to the revenue limit — rose from $150 per student in 2015-’16 to $654 per student in 2018-’19.
And of course there are local factors at play — a rise or decline in enrollment and the age and condition of the district’s school buildings could have played a role in the unprecedented level of spending approved by referendum in recent years.
"You don’t typically get record levels without multiple factors," Stein said.
Evers tweeted that "more than a million Wisconsinites have voted to raise their own property taxes because Republicans have failed to fully fund our public schools for the past eight years."
It’s not necessarily fair to blame construction-related referendums on funding levels — those are heavily determined by building condition and enrollment trends — but narrowing the focus to referendums for ongoing spending still shows more than 900,000 votes in support. That’s close to Evers’ claim of 1 million.
Blaming Republicans for all those referendums over-simplifies the matter, however, ignoring other factors that can play a role in voters’ decisions.
We rate Evers’ claim Half True.