School finance is sexy

OK, maybe school finance isn’t sexy, but it’s really important, as a few hundred angry taxpayers indicated recently to the Milwaukee school board, so bear with me here.

I was in Madison Thursday, testifying before the state senate’s education committee in favor a resolution that would set a deadline for a complete overhaul of the way Wisconsin funds public schools. The resolution, written by Rep. Pope-Roberts and Sen. Breske, is cosponsored by nearly half of the legislature. It would require the legislature to come up with a new plan by July 2009.

During the recent MPS budget unrest, I got asked a lot of questions, many of them not printable on a nice, family website like this one. A very polite and reasonable question that came up often was, "Why do we have to spend more if there are fewer students?"

There are many failings in the Wisconsin school funding formula, but one of the key problems is the relationship between a district’s total property wealth and the number of students in the district. In Wisconsin’s perverse funding formula, a district with fewer students but more property wealth has to raise more of its schools’ budget from local property taxes, regardless of the educational needs of students, the household income of the taxpayers, or even regardless of whether that property wealth is accurately measured. That is, because our Milwaukee homes have been subject to inflated valuation – and therefore our city, on paper at least, has more property wealth – the smaller number of students we have in MPS is divided by a bigger amount of money. The result is a higher property-wealth-per-pupil ratio, not in spite of the smaller number of students but because of it.

Think of it this way: If I ask you to divide $100 worth of property value by 50 students, you get a property wealth per pupil of $2. If I then tell you your $100 is actually worth $120 and then take away 10 students, the calculation is now $120 divided by 40, or $3 per pupil. The …