One of the talking points we are going to hear over and over again from Democrats during the upcoming budget battle in Madison will be that "Wisconsin Taxpayers want more funding for public education." That will be the argument against the $752-million tax cut plan and the expansion of school vouchers (which I STILL do not support in any way, shape of form). But if it's true that we "all" want to spend more for schools, we sure have a funny way of showing it.
How else to explain that 54% of all school referenda seeking to exceed the state-mandated revenue caps for recurring expenses have failed. Of the 927-referenda proposed by school boards since the caps went into effect in 1990, 499 have gone down to defeat--and another handful were canceled before even going to the ballot. (I did not compile the results of building-related initiatives--however a cursory check of the database shows those have gone down to defeat at a slightly higher rate.)
Those results however, are a bit misleading. In sorting through the referendum database, I found what you could call the "Goldilocks Pattern". Districts will usually come out with a large referendum package--which gets shot down. That is followed (sometimes in the next election cycle) with a medium-sized pacakge--which also is defeated. Then they come back again with a much-smaller funding request and voters finally say "Yes". Although, the White Lake School District once lost a referendum for an extra $25-thousand a year just to hire an additional maintenance person. But it is clear that if school boards take their case to the people of the district--and show a real need for additional funding above what the state and current property taxes can provide, voters will give them what they see as a "fair" amount of money.
So why don't Democrats just encourage school districts to seek this "end run" on the Republican budget proposal? There are three reasons. One, going out for a vote forces districts to be much more public with their spending. If elementary school foreign language is a line item buried in a regular budget, who pays attention to it? When you need to beg the voters to pay for that independently, they tend to turn a more critical eye toward the program.
Secondly, an increase in state taxes to pay for education is far less noticeable in a resident's budget than an increase in local property taxes. More education spending in the state budget means a smaller refund from Madison every April--something that might slip under the radar. A referendum victory means a higher property tax bill every December--which people do tend to notice more.
Finally, it is far easier for groups like the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and all other groups that believe all of society's ills are due to not enough government spending to back big money campaigns for 50-members of the State Assembly and 18-members of the State Senate to achieve their financial goals than it is to back 457 school district referenda.
So the money is there for public education. All school boards have to do is ask us for it--and prove that it really is needed.