Examining rural school funding: the challenges, the possible solutionsSubmitted: 09/11/2014
Examining rural school funding:  the challenges, the possible solutions
Story By Ben Meyer

RHINELANDER - A bipartisan mix of state lawmakers sees public school funding as one of the biggest challenges facing Wisconsin.

It also believes it has a fairer way to fund public schools.

Rural schools and schools with declining enrollment make up most of northern Wisconsin.

Those schools might face the most challenges with the state's current school funding formula.

"Truly, the way our rural schools go is the way all of our public schools will go in Wisconsin," said Rep. Mandy Wright (D-Wausau).

Wright and Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) pushed for the Fair Funding for Our Future proposal at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Northwoods in Rhinelander Thursday evening.

State Superintendent Tony Evers put the plan together, in part, to strengthen rural and declining enrollment schools.

"You can't run far enough in this state to avoid the consequences of poor educational efforts around the state," Schultz said.

The proportional level of funding to public schools in Wisconsin has steadily declined over the years.

Decades ago, Wisconsin promised two-thirds of school funding would come from the state.

But that's slipped to about 45% over time.

Many districts in northern Wisconsin get little or no state aid.

High property values in those areas mean the burden for school funding is shifted to property taxpayers, instead of the state.

The system has forced many districts, especially rural districts, to consistently go to referendum to pay the bills.

"The state has shirked its responsibility. Referendums have become a necessity. I think that's sad," Schultz said. "What it means is poor parts of the state, more rural parts of the state, are falling further and further behind, and that has consequences for kids."

The Fair Funding proposal would aim to restore the two-thirds promise over time.

But it would also guarantee a minimum level of state aid per student to schools, something that doesn't currently exist.

"The base funding of $3,000 per student is incredibly important because, as I toured on the Rural Schools Task Force, I met so many districts. I think I actually heard the number, one out of ten districts receive no state funding," Wright said.

The Fair Funding plan would also credit schools with high poverty rates, which could especially aid northern Wisconsin districts.

Across the state, the proportion of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, a classic indicator of poverty, more than doubled between 2001 and 2012.

Meanwhile, a provision called sparsity aid credits poor, rural, low-enrollment schools, helping shoulder the cost of things like transportation.

A push to expand sparsity aid in Wisconsin died in the Legislature last session, and is not a major point in the Fair Funding template.

"I think that that is something we definitely need to consider as we revise," Wright said.

While the Fair Funding plan may be attractive to many interested in school funding changes, it doesn't come without cost.

Last legislative session, the up-front cost was estimated at $400 million.

Wright believes if rural schools get better funding, people can be confident the money will be spent properly.

"We already have a significant amount of accountability measures," she said of current state standards.

The Fair Funding proposal is multifaceted.

But neither Schultz nor Wright think breaking it down into smaller pieces in the Legislature for ease of passage would work.

"It's important that we do it as a big package because if we take it apart too much, I think it doesn't work as a whole," Wright said.

"It's more politically viable because it's been thought through and it can be explained as a package," Schultz said.

Would suburban lawmakers, whose school districts may be comfortable with the current system, vote for a change?

"If they're willing to just sit by and let our rural schools literally close their doors," Wright said. "That's a heavy burden to bear."

Related Weblinks:
DPI's Fair Funding for Our Future plan

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