Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

By Briana Reilly

School advocates are praising Gov. Scott Walker’s boost to K-12 public education, even while some are uncertain about the guv’s methods for allocating per-pupil aid.

Southeast Wisconsin Schools Alliance Executive Director Terri Phillips Monday called the funding a “positive step,” adding she’s hopeful education advocates can work with the Legislature in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy called the increased funding “a positive thing for kids,” although he said he wasn’t sure why Walker decided to increase per-pupil funding through categorical aid instead of via the general school aid formula.

But Wisconsin Association of School Boards lobbyist Dan Rossmiller said funding through categorical aid provides “completely no-strings-attached state money” at an equal amount to every district in the state, ultimately a more digestible message for state residents, especially the ones in districts that receive little state general school aid.

Rossmiller said if the funding would be channeled through the school aid formula, more money would go to poorer vs. wealthier districts, as measured by per-pupil property value. Through categorical aid funding, however, he thinks all school districts will be happy because they receive the same level of money per-pupil directly from the state.

He added while this has been positively received, some WASB members have raised concerns that allocating funding in this way maintains the district-by-district “spending gap,” in which districts with low revenue limits, and thus lower per-pupil spending, are unable to match the levels of districts with higher revenue limits and higher per-pupil spending.

This then leaves low per-pupil spending districts unable to attract and retain teachers and offer certain courses and programs, among other things, Rossmiller said.

Phillips echoed Rossmiller, saying he is correct that the funding through categorical aid “doesn’t equalize any of that,” but an additional $200 per pupil would still be “incredibly helpful.”

Currently, Rossmiller said some low-spending districts are able to help make up per-pupil spending by going to referendum.

But he said that pathway to further funding may be in jeopardy if the state enacts limits on districts’ ability to boost revenue through referendums.

Although the guv committed to raising per-pupil funding by $200 in the 2017-18 school year and $204 the next year, Walker is funneling that money not through the school aid formula but through categorical aid outside of revenue limits.

State Superintendent Tony Evers and other school advocates had originally called for an increase in the school districts’ revenue limits funded by a backfill via the school aid formula.

The school aid formula, also called the equalization aid formula, seeks to equalize the tax bases between school districts, therefore minimizing the differences among schools in their abilities to raise tax revenue for education programs.

By providing money through the formula, schools encounter a cap on the amount of money they can collect from a combination of general state aid and property taxes. Without an increase in the revenue limits, which have been frozen since the 2014-15 school year, extra state aid sent to schools goes toward reducing a district’s property taxes.

A key difference in the two funding methods, McCarthy said, is that through increasing the revenue limit, school boards make the final decision on spending based on their financial picture. Meanwhile, categorical aid is automatically allocated based on enrollment and is treated as spending authority outside of revenue controls.

Read more on Walker’s K-12 funding announcement:

Walker wants $649 million boost to K-12 education

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