Fact-Checking Senator Grothman on 4K Funding

Senator Glenn Grothman generated some press coverage for his declaration that Scott Walker should use the powers of his office to cut off any state funding for four-year-old kindergarten (4K).

While Senator Grothman is a skeptic regarding the educational or social benefits of 4K, he couches his argument primarily in terms of the state’s budget challenges.  He seems particularly bothered by the decision of the Madison School Board to begin to offer 4K next year, despite the state’s looming budget deficit.

Senator Grothman’s press release provokes a number of responses.

First, it seems unusual to see any politician stake out a position in favor of fewer educational opportunities for Wisconsin’s schoolchildren.

Second, Senator Grothman’s position against providing public school opportunities for the state’s four year olds amounts to an attack on Wisconsin’s constitution.  Article X, section 3 of the constitution states:  “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years. . . ”

Third, I don’t think the senator’s point about the adverse impact of adding 4K on state spending holds up.  Schools districts like Madison that add 4K programs do not compel the state to spend any more on education.

Through the biennial budget process, the governor and legislature decide on a lump sum of state funding that will be available to school districts as school equalization aid.  That amount is then divvied up among the state’s 400+ school districts through the application of the state funding formula.  If a school district adds 4K, it will gradually do better under the formula because the increased number of students will bring down the district’s average cost per student, and district property value per student, the two key variables in the formula.  But this means the district will get a slightly larger slice of the pie; the pie remains the same size overall.

Madison will profit very little from this indirect financial benefit of adding a 4K program over the next biennium.  There is no increased state funding for the first year of the program, the 2011-2012 school year (except for the possibility of some limited state funds targeted specifically to districts starting 4K programs, which no one is counting on in Madison).

The impact of the increase in students begins to be felt during the second year of the biennium, 2012-2013, but because the state aid formula is based on a three-year rolling average of student enrollment, only one-third of the full formula impact of the increase in the number of the district’s students attributable to the 4K program will be realized that year.

Once the effect of the additional 4K students is fully rolled in, then from a state funding perspective, Madison will be on more equal terms with the 85% of school districts in the state that already have a 4K program.  Even with this, Madison still won’t do very well in terms of getting a fair share of the school aid that the state dispenses.  Madison currently has 2.83% of the state’s students, but we receive only 1.06% of the state’s general aid to education under the equalization formula.

Senator Grothman is from West Bend.  It would be great if Madison were to do as well as the West Bend school district under the state funding formula, but I’m not holding my breath.

The West Bend school district had 6,987 students in 2009-2010 (the last year for which enrollment data is available on the DPI website).  The district received $29,767,646 in state equalization aid in 2010-2011. This works out to $4,260 per student.

By contrast, Madison received $48,110,889 in 2010-2011 in equalization aid.  We had 24,628 students in 2009-2010.   This works out to $1,953 per student in state equalization aid, or about 46% of what the West Bend school district received on a per-student basis.

Senator Grothman writes that school districts are encouraged by the state school funding formula to add 4K because it is relatively inexpensive to add the program and the districts can take advantage of the positive effect the additional students have on the school district’s spending limits.

If 4K classes can be offered more economically than other grades and yet have a significant educational payoff, one would think that that is an argument in favor of 4K.  Indeed, University of Chicago economist and Nobel prize winner James Heckman has argued that additional investment in early education (birth to 5) is among the most cost-effective and socially beneficial of all public expenditures.  See here and here.

While adding 4K does have the effect of increasing a school district’s spending limits, the limits are of less practical significance for many districts, including Madison, than they used to be.  For the current school year, the Madison school district was one of about 25% of the districts in the state that spent less than the state spending caps authorized.  In Madison, we had about $10 million in spending authority that we did not utilize.   At this point, I wouldn’t expect that the spending limits will be a big issue for us come budget time in the spring.

As I have written before, it looks as if we will have to increase the property tax levy by about $4 million in each of the next three years to cover the incremental cost of the 4K start-up.  After that, the incremental cost of the program should be more than offset by the additional amount of state aid that we should receive as a consequence of the bump in enrollment attributable to 4K.  But for the next three years, the start of 4K will add, by my calculations,  about $45 in additional property taxes per year on a $250,000 home.

As a School Board, we have made the decision that the benefits of adding 4K are worth the cost in additional property taxes.  It seems to me that this is a paradigmatic example of the sort of decisions that locally-elected School Board members are entrusted to make.  If the community thinks that this decision was misguided, they have many ways to let us know, including by challenging me and other Board members at election time.

It’s a little hard to figure why a state legislator would want to prohibit us or any district from agreeing to pony up some more in property taxes so that we could provide better educational opportunities for the children in our community.


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One Response to Fact-Checking Senator Grothman on 4K Funding

  1. Julie Hoenig says:

    I couldn’t help but notice that you used your ability to pay Ms. Parker’s lost $300.00 and are somehow offended by the fact that the Governor isn’t asking you to. How many of us do you suppose are fortunate enough to be in your situation? Or are you implying that the Governor only tax attorneys who can easily afford it?

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