State lawmakers gathered on the Assembly floor. (Photo © Andy Manis)
State lawmakers gathered on the Assembly floor. (Photo © Andy Manis)

New analysis shows how tax money flows to private schools, tax cuts for wealthy

By the conclusion of 2021, the state of Wisconsin will have invested $3.9 billion less in its public schools than if education funding had remained at 2011 levels, according to a new analysis of state funding.

That is according to a report released Wednesday by the Wisconsin Budget Project, a Madison-based organization that analyzes state budget and tax issues.

In compiling the report, the organization traced a decades’ worth of budget decisions enacted by the GOP-controlled Legislature that resulted in record cuts to public education.

In short, the report found many state lawmakers have deemed tax cuts more important than supporting Wisconsin’s 400-plus public school districts.

The loss in public education dollars was accomplished by diverting millions toward the expansion of the private voucher school program, offering tax cuts primarily aimed at the wealthiest households and wiping out business taxes in manufacturing agriculture, according to the report. 

Next school year, the state will spend $75 million less in state aid than a decade earlier, based on inflation, the report states. That means a 1.2 percent reduction compared to state aid for schools in 2011, according to Tamarine Cornelius, the report’s author

Funding for public schools “is lower, in part, because lawmakers have prioritized tax cuts, many of which benefit the wealthy,” Cornelius said. “What this means is students are going without additional resources.”

Since January 2011, the Legislature has enacted more than 100 tax cuts, the report shows, totaling $13.6 billion during the past decade. The combined cost of those reductions has grown each year since, starting at $60 million in 2012 and growing to projected $2.4 billion in 2021, adjusting for inflation, the report states.

Those tax cuts have drained dollars from public schools, Cornelius said. 

According to the report, if lawmakers had not approved the tax cuts and instead would have appropriated the tax dollars to public schools, an additional $727 million would currently be available for the public school system. 

Simply eliminating the manufacturing credit given to Wisconsin businesses and instead dedicating the taxes collected to public schools would have boosted funding above 2011 levels, Cornelius said.

The report states the manufacturing credit last year gave 21 businesses, each of whom earned more than $30 million, an average estimated tax reduction of $1.9 million each, according to figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

“The money has been there, but the will to put it toward public schools has not,” Cornelius said.  

Actual dollars spent on public education in Wisconsin have increased in recent budget cycles. For example, the 2019-21 state budget provides $583 million more to K-12 public schools during those two years. 

Republican legislators point to those numbers as evidence they are committed to funding schools across the state. The need for money for K-12 education must be balanced with funding requests for the state’s UW System schools and a wide variety of other state programs, they said.

The growth of voucher and charter schools in recent years also has meant less money for public schools, figures show. 

State Department of Public Instruction figures show Wisconsin taxpayers will spend $349.6 million on school vouchers this school year, up from $302 million in 2018-19. 

The 43,450 students receiving vouchers this year, money that comes at the expense of public education funding, is up 8.5 percent or 3,411 students from the previous year.

Debate about using public money to fund private schools in Wisconsin continued this week when Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos touted choice schools during a rally Tuesday at the Capitol. Republican legislators at the event spoke in support of funding and expanding private schools. They said students in poor-performing public schools deserve better education options.   

The lack of investment in the state’s public schools not only places many of the state’s 400-plus districts in a difficult financial position but results in children going without some of the services they need to become successful adults, said Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

“We’re not giving our students as many services as we should to make sure they can succeed,” Dubois Bourenane said, noting that while funding for mental health services in Wisconsin schools doubled this year from roughly $6 million to about $13 million, it falls far short of the need and the $61 million Gov. Tony Evers requested in his proposed budget. 

A report earlier this month showed state tax revenues are projected to be $818 million higher than anticipated. Cornelius proposes at least some of that money go toward public schools funding.

Dubois Bourenane agrees. 

She said WPEN will propose using $150 million of the surplus for special education funding in public schools.

Legislative Republicans have discussed refunding at least part of the surplus to taxpayers, or paying down debt. Some Democrats have proposed spending it on various programs in need of funding. Cornelius hopes a monetary boost to public schools is on the table for discussion.

“The need for quality education seems like a topic Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on,” she said. “Hopefully we can see movement on this front.”