Jen Zettel, Post-Crescent Media October 17, 2015
MADISON — Public school districts and taxpayers across the state could feel the impact of vouchers this year, as more than $16 million is transferred from public schools to pay for new entrants into the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.
State law now requires public school districts to pay for vouchers. The money will be deducted from state aid.
A total of 142 public school districts have students who use taxpayer-funded subsidies to attend private schools. The state deducted $16.1 million in aid to cover the cost of new voucher students, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
To cover the loss, the state gives public schools the ability to increase their revenue limits. The revenue limit is made up of two things: state aid and property taxes.
Public schools will have to raise their property tax levies in the first year to make up for the reduction, said Don Hietpas, chief financial officer in the Appleton Area School District. Appleton, the state’s sixth-largest school district, is expected to lose $664,000 in aid this year. The school district could raise the property tax levy by as much as $883,496 to make up for the deduction.
School districts could levy $21.4 million more in property taxes for 2015-16 to fund new students entering the statewide parental choice program, DPI figures show.
Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said the tax impact will vary.
“It’s going to be different for every school district around the state as to their ability to levy, because now they’re counting all these kids in their head counts. If they so choose, they can levy property taxes for them, where in the past they couldn’t do that,” Bender said.
How it works
The baseline year for the funding process is 2015-16. The DPI takes the number of new students using vouchers per district this year and counts them toward the district’s state aid in 2016-17.
That means if the number of students using vouchers doesn’t change from one year to the next, the result is a wash for the school district.
“State aid would kick in for next year,” said John Johnson, a DPI spokesman. “If you have the same number of students next year, then you’d have state aid next year for that amount.”
The first year is what Bender called “a lag year” because there are no students from the previous year for districts to count toward aid — there’s only the reduction.
If the number of students using vouchers increases, aid would be deducted — and those students would count toward aid for the following school year, Johnson said.
The revenue limit exemption is calculated by taking the aid reduction and multiplying it by the total number of students who use vouchers.
Bender said the funding mechanism is similar to open enrollment, but it’s hard to judge the system until the DPI releases more data.
“The districts have been given their general school aid deduction and their new revenue limit authority … I haven’t seen anything with regard to total enrollment in the voucher program and how many students switched from public schools or were entering school or private school,” he said. “That all kind of plays into how the funding mechanism works.”
During the first two years of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, the number of students who could participate was limited. Those caps no longer exist.
State law now limits voucher participation to 1 percent of a school district’s student membership, or the total number of school-age children who live in the district.
The cap can increase by 1 percent each year, starting in the 2018 fiscal year. If the number of students using vouchers reaches 10 percent of a school district’s membership, the cap would disappear the following school year, Johnson said.
First-year tax impact
The tax impact varies from school district to school district, Johnson said.
Outside of Milwaukee Public Schools, which has its own voucher-funding process, Racine will see the greatest reduction in state aid at nearly $4.2
million, according to the DPI. Racine can add an additional $5.6 million to its property tax levy as a result.
Green Bay Area Public Schools are the next highest with a $1.1 million reduction in aid, followed by Kenosha at $671,000 and Appleton at $664,000.
Appleton held its budget hearing last week. In light of the aid deduction, the tax information officials presented to the public is inaccurate.
The tax rate, which was initially expected to drop by 7 cents, will go up 6 cents per $1,000 of home valuation, Hietpas said.
“It’s a real curve, no doubt about it,” Hietpas said.
Currently, school districts are learning about the process and waiting to see what happens. Bender said he’s interested to see how the conversation evolves, especially considering its similarities to open enrollment.
“The voucher program carries with it different political opposition, so now there’s going to be much more scrutiny on the open enrollment funding model now that vouchers are attached to it,” he said. “It’s going to be different how it plays out in the public realm, how it plays out financially and legislatively.”
Voucher impact on Wisconsin public schools for 2015-16
School district Aid reduction Revenue limit exemption*
Statewide** $16,090,735 $21,374,926
Racine $4,164,500 $5,580,980
Green Bay $1,091,413 $1,406,418
Kenosha $670,794 $933,896
Appleton $664,064 $883,496
Waukesha $511,332 $677,739
Eau Claire $491,090 $657,803
West Allis $410,595 $556,427
Sheboygan $400,915 $568,891
Wausau $344,226 $479,675
Neenah $322,476 $411,652
Fond du Lac $313,862 $379,407
Stevens Point $291,682 $361,721
Oshkosh $288,452 $359,670
La Crosse $230,740 $337,225
Menasha $230,094 $296,499
West Bend $227,025 $271,274
DC Everest $131,144 $183,716
Plymouth $113,378 $137,718
Manitowoc $66,218 $82,786
Wisconsin Rapids $51,144 $71,669
Marshfield $46,891 $59,971
*Maximum amount school districts can add to their property tax levy to make up for the reduction in aid.
**Statewide totals are for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, so they do not include Milwaukee.
Source: Department of Public Instruction
Jen Zettel: 920-993-1000, ext. 539, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @jenzettel