The Absurd MPS Case for Referendum

Will Flanders, Research Director

The Milwaukee Public Schools announced plans for a referendum that could put local property tax payers on the hook for as much as $640 million in new spending. The district, which has not gone to referendum in many years, claims this new spending is needed to keep spending on par with its suburban peers. Below are four takeaways from one of the most absurd proposals to come from MPS in decades.

MPS Already on Par with Suburbs — Or Spending More

According to the most recent data from DPI, the claim that Milwaukee is lacking in funding simply doesn’t hold water. This number represents the “all-in” spending in a district — accounting for state, local and federal revenue along with “other local revenue.” Milwaukee already spends more per student than many suburban districts, including some with a generally good reputation. Mequon-Thiensville — which earned a five star rating on the most recent report cards — spends more than $1,500 less per student than MPS. Indeed, all of the districts here achieve dramatically higher proficiency rates on state exams with lower total per student spending. To say that spending in MPS isn’t keeping up with other nearby districts is simply not defensible.

Choice & Charter Schools Show a Better Path

The vast majority of academic research still shows that more spending on schools is not the answer to improving outcomes. And one would think that MPS would understand this given that they have evidence right in their own backyard that lower spending schools can achieve better results. Milwaukee’s choice and charter schools have significantly less revenue per student than do MPS schools. For the 2018–19 school year, independent charter schools received just $8,619 per student from state and local sources, compared with $10,494 from those sources for MPS (we leave federal funds out here to be fair to MPS because it is unclear how much goes to choice and charter schools from that source, but there is little doubt the inclusion of these funds would only serve to increase the gap). For private schools in the choice program, the amounts were $7,747 for K-8 and $8,393 for 9–12. Despite spending literally thousands of dollars less per student, these schools consistently perform better on state exams, have higher graduation rates, and produce students who are less likely to become involved in criminal activity. Rather than asking for more money, MPS should investigate what is working in these schools and attempt to replicate it.

Spending more on Facilities…But Keeping Vacant Ones

Despite the immensity of proposed spending increases, apparently MPS spending on facilities would be borrowed on top. This notion is rendered absurd when one considers that the city continues to hold on to vacant school buildings rather than sell them to choice and charter schools that would make use of them. Our research has shown that MPS spends more than $1 million a year on maintenance for vacant buildings. Moreover, there is a significant amount of under-utilized space in many MPS schools. Yet, despite this excess inventory, the city continually refuses to sell schools to choice and charter schools. Before Milwaukee taxpayers agree to spend more on facilities, they ought to demand that MPS rid itself of this wasted space.

Proposal would Put MPS Among the Highest Spending Districts in the State

Assuming this new spending could justifiably be included in the district’s per pupil revenue, MPS would have funding of approximately $23,000 per student. This is not only more than all suburban districts, but more than almost all other districts in the state. An infusion of $640 million would represent an increase of more than $8,000 per pupil. Again, adding to the most recent DPI revenue data, this would make Milwaukee the fourth highest spending district in the state at more than $23,000 per student. The districts in this range are very different from MPS. Lac du Flambeau is a rural area located partially in an Indian reservation, and receives a large portion of its aid from the federal government. The other high-spending districts are rural districts with few students and a large amount of property wealth.

The City of Milwaukee has struggled in recent decades to grow. While a quality educational system can help in achieving that goal, huge property tax increases aren’t the way to bring that about. Indeed, massive property tax hikes like those proposed here are likely to increase the rate of exodus from the city, if anything. MPS has not been a good steward of taxpayer money in the past, and their terrible performance with Wisconsin’s most at-risk students should not be rewarded with even more funding.

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty

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A non-profit law & policy group in Wisconsin. We defend property rights, voting rights, school choice, religious liberty & other ideas conservative.

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