The number of students attending Wisconsin public schools is expected to decline in the coming school year. School administrators and union representatives are concerned that the decline could lead to gaps in funding for special education, mental health resources and activities to address the needs of low- income students and racial and ethnic minorities.

Since 2014, enrollment rates in Wisconsin public schools have been declining across the board, and the 2020-21 school year was no exception. Enrollment declined 2.9%, which was the largest single-year decline in public school enrollment in at least 25 years, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

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Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said each school district faces limits on the amount of money it can take in through property taxes and state general aid, resulting in differing amounts from district to district.

Those revenue limits are tied to enrollment. So if enrollment in a district goes down, the amount of revenue available to that district is reduced accordingly, Rossmiller said.

This year, the Legislature provided more state aid to districts but did not allow any adjustment in districts’ revenue limits. As a result, the increased aid will go toward reducing property taxes, not more spending by districts.

“That’s a hard thing for most people to understand,” Rossmiller said. “When they hear that the state is increasing aid to schools, they think schools will have more money. Revenue limits mean that isn’t necessarily the case.”

Michael Jones, president of Madison Teachers Inc., said some school officials believe the money allocated to them will not be enough to meet their student and staff needs.

“It’s like we are punting again on an opportunity to do what’s right,” Jones said.

Special education remains one underfunded area that could benefit from more state and federal support, Jones and other school administrators said. Both state and federal law require districts to provide special education services to students with disabilities.

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“Although the state provides what is called ‘special education categorical aid’ in an attempt to reimburse school districts for the costs of providing those mandated special education services to students with disabilities, reimbursements are calculated based on eligible costs incurred in the prior year,” Rossmiller said.

The state currently covers roughly 28% of school districts’ special education costs. Because of revenue limits, when a district’s special education costs increase faster than the aid that reimburses those costs, the districts must cut other programs and services or dip into their fund balances.

These programs could include ones that offer mental health resources to help students cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Activities to address the needs of low-income students and racial and ethnic minorities are also where many administrators say they would like to see more funding but instead often get cut.

“Unfortunately, especially here in Wisconsin, we are just naturally inclined to talk about cutting. When you see a decrease in enrollment, that obviously means decreasing revenue, which means, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to have to cut something then,’” Jones said. “What can we do to increase that investment as opposed to figuring out ways we need to decrease the investment?’”

Sue Today, president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said administrators, teachers and staff are always searching for the best ways to invest in students with the funds that school districts do have.

“We’re looking at the money that is coming to us and how we can best use that to address gaps in academic learning and the social emotional needs,” Today said. “Everyone is looking at how they can best utilize those funds to ensure that we support our students in the best way possible.”

Kate Van Dyke is a former Dow Jones data intern for Adams Publishing Group Southern Wisconsin.

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