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Taxes too high? Look to schools

By Matt Pommer

When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton answered “because that’s where the money is.”

Folks upset about taxes might want to remember the answer from the infamous bank robber. If you don’t like your taxes, try to persuade lawmakers to cut government spending.

In Wisconsin, the place to start is local education. During the 2008-09 school year, Wisconsin spent $9.5 billion on kindergarten through high school, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The state government share was $6.296 billion.

Overall state support for local schools has ranged between 65.12 percent and 66.06 percent in the past three years, according to the Fiscal Bureau. That money has come from general purpose revenue taxes such as the personal income tax, the sales tax and the corporate income tax.

Wisconsin has a program of state aid to school districts to meet the constitutional goal of an equal education. Property poor districts get large chunks of state aid; property rich districts get far less.

Last year Beloit got 88 percent of its revenue from the state. Twenty others also received more than 80 percent. On the other end of the table, 15 districts received less than 25 percent of their budgets from the state.

Some protests, dubbed as tea party rallies, call for cuts in taxes, especially those collected by the state.

School costs are difficult to curb. Scores of municipalities, as well as state government itself, are resorting to unpaid furlough days for their workers to reduce spending.

To resort to that tactic in public schools, state law would need to be changed. It now specifies 180 days of in-school education for each child.

This year state government used $552.3 million in federal stimulus money (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) to help finance schools. It marked the first time federal money has been appropriated to support Wisconsin school districts.

Finance experts estimate Wisconsin will enter the 2011-13 budget with a $2 billion gap, including the stimulus money. Clearly tax protesters have their work cut out for them. Maybe they should approach it with the enthusiasm Sutton showed for robbing banks.

“I enjoyed everything about it (robbing banks) so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job,” he said.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.


  1. The answer is to forego the state’s blank-check Unified School Systems and return to the Joint School Systems where the School Boards are subservient to the City/Village/Town Councils and all expenditures by the local school boards must be reviewed and approved by the municipal leadership. This is possible through the state’s referendum-and-initiative process under the state statutes.

  2. Problem is, even the writer of this article seems to imply when referring to the ‘state aid’,State government, and the ‘stimulus’, or other ‘federal money’, as though it all magically comes from somewhere, in an endless supply, with no strings attached, or no need to pay it back. That is the overall attitude, as some spoiled child who has always been given everything they want.
    Bottom line….Local, State or Federal it’s ALL TAX DOLLARS, from US!, and the government cannot ‘give’ what it first must take. To the bank robber analogy, we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul….and we’re all Petered out!
    There is not a school system in the state that is not operating as efficiently as they should…start there. Try a little infusion of competition, are you telling me that these schools cannot educate kids for 10 grand per child, a year??? I can tell you a whole lot of private schools do a heck of a lot better job educating kids for about half that amount.

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