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Fed’s help points out fatal flaws in state funding formula

The federal government, in order to keep kids in classrooms and learning during the economic downturn, just sent $179 million to Wisconsin, the Badger State’s share of the Education Jobs Fund’s $10 billion.

It was up to the state to distribute these desperately needed resources to the state’s 424 school districts, and Governor Jim Doyle decided to use the equalization formula.

There is no doubt the added resources are desperately needed. The only question is “how did we do” in making sure it helped kids. Well, let’s see.

On a per-student basis, Oconomowoc got $459.79 per student, Bonduel got $238.18, New Berlin got $160.60, Beloit got $96.85, Chequamegon got $1.71, Turtle Lake got $.58, Elcho got $.07, and Gibraltar got a penny. Apparently, we didn’t do so well (for a complete list of the per-student allocation of the Education Jobs Fund, click here).

I don’t know about you, but for me that is pretty much the definition of “it didn’t work.” So, the question now is, “What happened?”

The answer is quite simple. If you are part of the school-funding reform effort, you probably didn’t even ask. Putting money into the state’s equalization formula-as the sole means of funding public education-is like putting money on a roulette wheel: “Where she stops, and how much aid you get, nobody knows.”

For years, WAES has talked about school-funding reform that links revenue to what we want kids to know and do and to their needs and the needs of their communities. For example, one of those needs is poverty.

The equalization formula-without additional categorical aid-doesn’t recognize that children from poor families need additional resources, as stated by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Because some districts with a great deal of poverty (for example, lakes districts throughout northern Wisconsin) are also extremely property wealthy, the equalization formula doesn’t see, much less understand, the difference.

So, when Wisconsin ran its $179 million from the Education Job’s Fund through the state equalization formula, Crivitz got $360, Birchwood got $42, Minocqua got $28, Green Lake got $15, and Phelps got $7-those figures, remember, are for the entire district.

If Wisconsin had used the Title I funding formula-a formula devised to address poverty-the roughly comparable distribution would have been $174,911 for Crivitz, $57,558 for Birchwood, $137,078 for Minocqua, $39,442 for Green Lake, and $41,103 for Phelps.

Could the Governor have done a better job of allocating the federal funds? Maybe, maybe not. Did some districts get “more than their fair share” of the federal funds? Again, maybe, maybe not.

That really isn’t the point. The point is that Wisconsin’s school-funding system doesn’t work-it isn’t fair to all children, plain and simple. Our schools and children shouldn’t suffer because of the state Legislature’s failure to address the crisis.

So, what can we do?

First, and this is a long shot, the Legislature can come back into session and consider a better way to distribute the Education Jobs Fund resources. The equalization model, used alone, has definite drawbacks. Title I funding, aimed at kids from poverty, isn’t perfect. Perhaps if we use the equalization formula and categorical aids together to reach specific students, all of Wisconsin’s public school teachers could stay in the classroom and kids could keep learning.

Second, maybe the stark and complete failure of Wisconsin’s equalization system to meet the needs of all children will be tipping point for reform. Over the last decade, more and more lawmakers have paid lip service to reform. On the campaign trail over the next few months, hopefully, they will run out of excuses and promise to get the job done. Of course, it will be up to you to hold their feet to the fire and hold them accountable.

Finally-and most important to children, their schools and communities, and taxpayers-we need to continue working for and pressuring legislators and candidates to support “A Penny for Kids,” a one-cent increase in Wisconsin’s sales tax that would be the boost to revenue that is needed, in this short-term economic downturn, to really keep kids in the classroom and learning.

Related stories:

» MPS would have got more with Title I formula
» Not all schools are sure about spending federal money
» Door County districts "shortchanged" by federal aid distribution


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