Here’s why Wisconsin’s public school budgets are struggling

Education march in DC

FILE - Washington, DC - July 22, 2017 (Shutterstock)

By Yesica Balderrama

May 9, 2024

Voters are being asked to make up the difference as state aid fails to keep up with rising costs and more state dollars are being transferred to private schools.

Even as public schools struggle with declining enrollment and teacher turnover, precious tax dollars are being transferred to private, mostly religious schools. As a result, public schools are forced into the unenviable role of asking voters to raise their own taxes, to make up for state support from the Legislature that continues to fall further behind.

State aid for education in Wisconsin is distributed between two systems: private voucher schools and public schools. In 2023-2024 state public schools received 39% less in student aid. In comparison, voucher schools (also known as School Choice and Parental Choice) increased their annual funding per pupil by more than 17.8% according to data by the Wisconsin Education Network. The students who are most adversely impacted are those who have disabilities or living in poverty.

Local referendums passed to override the limit law for public school districts provide minimal temporary financial relief, for a statewide issue that has persisted for years. Wisconsin established revenue limits for public school districts in 1994 that cannot be exceeded. The limit law was created to keep the growth on school property taxes in check. The law is still active 30 years later, and has not been adjusted to meet present day inflation, the rising number of voucher schools, or the changing infrastructure needs of institutions. It has produced an unfair structure; some schools have higher spending limits than others because of decisions made a generation ago.

In the school years of 2022-2023 and 2023-2024, voucher schools for grades 9-12 had the greatest budget growth, at $12,387 funding per pupil. During that same time period, 39% of public schools received less state aid according to data by the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The revenue limits for each district can be found here.

Here’s why Wisconsin’s public school budgets are struggling

“[There are] two ways vouchers defund public schools. One, they eat more of the state revenue to new costs for kids who were in private school already. And then the second way is at the local level, with the few kids who transfer out of each local district. It adds up. The kids who do leave, take the dollars with them, and the fixed cost of districts remains.”said Joshua Cowen, Ph.D. and Professor of Education Policy at the University of Michigan, who has studied voucher schools for over 20 years.

No Educational Advantage

The educational value of voucher schools for Wisconsinites is dubious. Various studies show the schools provide little to no academic advantage, according to Dr. Cowen. He was a researcher on the School Demonstration Study published in 2012, which evaluated the academic achievement of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program for five-years. At the completion of the study, two groups of similar students, one from public schools and one from voucher schools, showed no significant differences in English and math test scores. In more recent studies, voucher schools showed subpar performance in STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Here’s why Wisconsin’s public school budgets are struggling

Joshua Cowen (Photo courtesy McShane Photography)

“Data from Milwaukee showed the lowest performing schools on the state exams. And we’re talking about schools that were at the fifth percentile, and they were private. Those schools were disproportionately teaching subjects like creationism for science.” said Cowen about a system where 95% of voucher schools are religious.

Subsidizing Wealthier Families

In 1990 the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program voucher school system was created to benefit low income students and students of color. But now more than 80% of the schools’ pupils have never attended public school, according to the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The result is a voucher school system that subsidizes costs for wealthy families that can afford to send their kids to private schools and, in many cases, were already doing so. Students living at the poverty level are left at a greater disadvantage as a result of the wealth transfer of taxpayer funds.

“In the early days, voucher programs in general across the country were targeted programs. Those vouchers did go to lower income families and families of color. In the last few years, as vouchers have expanded and removed those income thresholds, white users have been disproportionately the beneficiaries.” said Dr. Cowen

Disability and Special Education Discrimination

Legally, voucher schools are not required to adhere to non-discrimination laws. The schools have been embroiled in controversy with accusations of discrimination against LGBTQ+ students and students with disabilities. In 2022 two Fox Valley Lutheran High School students, a basketball player and cheerleading captain, were threatened with expulsion because school staff thought the young women were dating.

The ACLU of Wisconsin and Disability Rights of Wisconsin groups submitted a complaint to the Department of Justice in 2011, accusing the voucher school system of excluding students with disabilities. The Department of Justice ruled in favor of the disability rights advocacy groups. It declared Wisconsin had to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Pupils with disabilities who are sent back to public schools from voucher schools return to an overburdened system. Public schools are reimbursed through state aid for only about one-third of their costs for special education, with the rest coming from the local district’s overall budget. Voucher schools get about 90% reimbursement from state taxpayers for costs incurred through their Special Needs Scholarship Program.

2023 Budget Deal Not Enough

The 2023 Wisconsin state budget included significant increases in funding for public education, but advocates say the deal was far from enough to address historic underfunding and only increased the funding gap between the two school systems that Wisconsin taxpayers are now funding.

“I talked to a lot of legislators. They said, schools got a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money. But it doesn’t make up for the 30 years of defunding. It doesn’t make up for the 16 years of no rates of inflation given public schools.” said Chris Hambuch-Boyle of Eau Claire, a retired educator and former school board president.

Here’s why Wisconsin’s public school budgets are struggling

Chris Hambuch-Boyle

When matched for inflation, the state capital given to public schools is below 2009 spending. Students are experiencing years of compounded underfunding. Local districts use referendums to raise caps on revenue limits for public schools. This year only 60.2% of requested referendums passed. Almost half of public schools were left without additional financial aid. The number of referendums has notably increased during the past decade, but the approval rate remains low, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. More schools are in dire need of funding.

“They are allowing public schools to survive, they are not allowing kids to thrive,” said Boyle.


  • Yesica Balderrama

    Yesica Balderrama is a bilingual journalist based in New York City. Her written work has been published in The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times en Español, NPR, WNYC, Yes! Magazine and others.



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