Regular Broken, Really Broken, Off the Rails

In Wisconsin, we once had a “Regular Broken” school revenue system. 

Regular Broken was a system that was supposed to provide enough funding to keep pace with inflation but really didn’t. It was invented in 1993 by Governor Tommy Thompson and placed per-pupil revenue limits on schools. Schools could not raise revenue above the limits, but the limits were at least adjusted to keep pace with the Consumer Price Index (if not actual school costs). In essence, Regular Broken was a “Keep Pace” system tied to inflation.

Note that as any Wisconsin school business official will tell you, Regular Broken didn’t really work because medical and other school related costs annually outpaced inflation and because K-12 categorical funding for students with disabilities and others did not keep pace with student needs. 

Then the Great Recession hit, and in 2009-10 revenue limits (per-pupil school funding) did not keep pace with inflation. And then, in 2011-12, the state imposed massive funding cuts upon schools in association with Act 10. 

Stepping away from the disruption of the Great Recession and arguments surrounding Act 10—which are many and justified—over the past decade, from 2012-13 to 2020-21, Wisconsin K-12 funding entered the era of “Really Broken.” 

Really Broken is unique from Regular Broken in that Really Broken has never allowed for per-pupil funding that has kept pace with inflation. It violated the Tommy Thompson standard in that it is an “Off the Pace” system. The Really Broken era has remained off the pace every year and has therefore underfunded schools relative to inflation for ten years. Because inflation goes up every year, each year of underfunding compounds the underfunding problem.  

In essence, every year off of the pace puts schools that much further behind. The effect is cumulative. 

And now, with the passage of the last state budget, K-12 funding in Wisconsin has moved from Regular Broken to Really Broken to Off the Rails. 

Off the Rails, so called because in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, the state will provide no per pupil increase of any kind. Zero. This at a time when inflation is the highest that it has been in 40 years. 

In Wisconsin, over the past ten years, per pupil funding has been off the pace by $1,864.65. Multiply that number by the eligible enrollment of your school district and you will see how much more support the students in your schools would be receiving if state funding had simply kept pace with the standard created by Governor Thompson. Trends suggest that funding will be off of the pace by at least another $342 next year. 

The solution to support students and to help with this problem is readily available. The state is carrying an unprecedented “surplus,” achieved in large part by the underfunding of its schools. 

Going into the legislative session this spring, to increase per pupil funding is not only necessary but easily funded and would benefit children in every part of the state. The legislature and the governor need to work together to support Wisconsin’s kids.

About the author: Wisconsin Public Education Network

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