What Wisconsin says about the affordability of K-12

March 11, 2011 •

The drama playing out in Wisconsin is something of a political spectacle.

As the opening shot in a strategy to reconcile a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, the state’s new Republican governor has been working with the conservative legislature to try and rush legislation that would significantly restrict the ability of public sector employees to bargain collectively.

What we are seeing in Wisconsin is the traditional model of public schooling—and public services generally—buckling for the first time at a state level. See this blog post from last Wednesday.

The cost of doing business for Madison Metropolitan School District is increasing at an annual rate of 3.8 percent. With economic growth around two percent the district—like districts across the state and the country—is becoming more expensive in real terms each year.

Cuts are made to balance the budget. Same service, but less of it. Because costs have been outpacing growth in revenue and are projected to continue doing so, this practice of austerity has become perennial. A balanced budget this session will become a two percent deficit next spring.

Try an exercise: Take the total operating budget of a major urban district and divide by the number of students they serve. Avoid the mind-numbing complexities of the varied sources and conditions of revenue and enrollment—just total spending by total number of kids. Chances are it is much greater than necessary to run an effective school. In Madison, it is $15,000 per head.

Across the country there are independent public elementary, middle, and high schools that operate on two-thirds that amount. Often they look different—are designed differently—and are smaller in size. Sometimes they make creative use of digital electronics.

To resolve K-12 costs over the long term Governor Walker could ask the legislature—the architects of the state’s education system—to evolve public schooling toward a framework that rewards innovation. He may find the teachers, if not their union, are in fact allies in this work and an asset with unexplored potential.

As political tensions rise, it is more important than ever to clearly understand the problem.

Image: City bus takes Republican lawmakers away from the state capitol in Wisconsin