Per-pupil spending on public education in Wisconsin grew by 15% from 2008-2018, compared to 23% nationwide, ranking Wisconsin 38th among the states by this measure. This is worth considering amid fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 crisis that likely will create new state budget pressures, including for school funding.
U.S. Census data shows that reductions in staff benefits, removed from collective bargaining under 2011 Act 10, drove much of the difference between Wisconsin’s spending levels and national averages. In 2002, Wisconsin led the nation in spending just over $2,000 per pupil on school employee benefits and remained well above the national average through 2012. A sharp 15% drop that year brought Wisconsin’s rank to 18th in the country and it has since dropped below the national average to 28th in 2018.
At the same time that school district employees saw reduced benefits, their salaries increased at rates that lagged national averages. Census data show spending on salaries for school district employees in Wisconsin has remained below national averages since before 2008 and ranked 27th in 2018. Between 2011 and 2018, Wisconsin average salaries per pupil increased by 7.2%, whereas the average nationwide climbed by almost twice that rate, 13.1%.
As schools across Wisconsin begin a new school year amid a global pandemic that has upended almost every aspect of their operations, the state is facing financial challenges that may limit school funding in the upcoming state budget, or even in the current one.
As the single largest category of general-purpose revenue state spending, education could face additional pressure in the next state budget. As they work to prioritize state spending needs, policymakers may wish to consider how these trends may have affected the quality of public K-12 education in Wisconsin, and whether additional spending reductions would place the state too far behind neighboring states and the country as a whole.
This information is provided to Wisconsin Newspaper Association members as a service of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the state’s leading resource for nonpartisan state and local government research and civic education. Learn more at wispolicyforum.org.