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Sunday, March 7, 2010

What Is Your Student Worth?

I've heard some odd language coming from school administrators and others involved in the debate over the school funding formula. In defending House Bill 1150, which would have reduced the state aid smaller schools receive for students open enrolling from larger districts, Madison superintendent Vince Schaefer made the following argument:

Schaefer said the bill's intent was to pose a question to the legislators.

"My question is this," he said. "Why is a child worth more money because they open enroll into a smaller district? They should only be worth the funding from the state formula" [Elisa Sand, "Fahrenwald: Open Enrollment Bill Distracts," Madison Daily Leader, 2010.03.04].

Mitchell super Joe Graves made a similar argument in testimony March 2 to the State Senate Education committee, saying students should have the same government dollars behind them regardless of where they choose to go to school. (If only we could swing a deal like that when a kid from Minnesota moves here!)

Rutland superintendent Carl Fahrenwald properly reframes the question:

Fahrenwald said it's not a question of what the student is worth, but rather the additional cost for smaller schools to provide the same education.

"As soon as a kid comes from Madison to Rutland, it does cost (us) more to educate them," Fahrenwald said. "But the family is wanting to come, so if the state is providing state aid for students, they should support the family's decision" [Sand, 2010.03.04].

The discussion of the worth of a student in terms of state dollars is misleading if not appalling. Schaefer and every other administrator knows that the funding formula does not declare the fiscal value of a given student; as Fahrenwald says, it reflects the marginal cost of doing business in different school settings.

But if Schaefer and other supporters of HB 1150 are annoyed by Madison students being "worth more" when they open enroll at Chester or Rutland, it must really grate Schaefer's cheese when Madison students and their families actually move to a smaller town and bring more state aid to their new school. Would Schaefer argue that a students' worth is determined by where they are born, or where they live when they enroll in kindergarten?

What if we applied this specious "student worth" argument to extracurriculars? If the debate team has 12 kids and the gymnastics team has 30, and if the head coaches get paid about the same amount, do we contend that the kid who switches from gymnastics to debate is somehow "worth more" because the coach is getting paid more per student? No: that wouldn't make sense. Coach salaries, just like school funding, reflect the cost of doing the job, not the inherent or fiduciary worth of each student.

Of course, if Schaefer wants argue that the dollars assigned by the state do directly reflect each student's worth, he should be less worried about the apparent inequity of Madison students being worth 15% less than Rutland students and more worried about the inequity that a Madison SD student is worth 49% less than a Madison WI student.

As Fahrenwald correctly points out (and no, his district's ad deal with me didn't buy this commentary), the real inequity is our state's continued undervaluing of every student and underfunding of every school, large and small. It's Pierre that views students strictly as a monetary value... as an expense rather than an investment.

Related note: Rep. Deb Peters from Hartford testified that the intent of HB 1150 was indeed to address open enrollment. She said she wanted to make sure kids don't open enroll just because the smaller receiving school will receive a bonus. I could be wrong, but I'm willing to bet that when parents look at choosing a school for their kids, the dollar amount that district receives from Pierre for their child isn't among their top tier concerns. They're thinking more, if not exclusively, about finding the best educational opportunities for their kids. If Peters really wants to "address" open enrollment, perhaps she could simply encourage her home school district to offer educational opportunities that would win back the 29 kids West Central loses to neighboring Montrose alone.


  1. There are many reasons to support smaller schools. Not the least of which is to keep school choice options open to families.

  2. The school funding game is the same every year in the state legislature. This game involves multiple versions of the same basic ploy- come up with issues to divert attention from the fact that the state aid formula is inadequately funded (and that other areas of the state budget have seen double and triple the percentage increases in spending compared to K-12 for years on end). Minimum school size, joint administration bills, small school factor money, open enrollment busing, etc. Throw out any of these issues in the form of a bill then watch the fireworks. Then run the clock out on the legislative session..... Madison taxpayers would not see one dime of benefit from HB 1150. Why not focus instead on holding the legislature responsible for the state aid shortfall that is driving the current opt out renewal?

  3. ... other areas of the state budget have seen double and triple the percentage increases in spending compared to K-12 for years on end.

    Really? I didn't know that! If it's a fact, then it sheds new light (for me) on the nature of our state budget. Carl, can you provide some references to back up this assertion?

    Maybe we should slash other areas of the budget to match our stinginess in education funding.


  4. Thank you Stan for calling me out. Yes, the percent increases in the K-12 budget vs. other areas of government is well documented. In addition to my own wikipage, the Associated School Boards of SD does an excellent job of documenting and tracking what I am referring to. For starters, review a presentation called "School Funding Realities" on the ASBSD website,
    The Associated School Boards represents school districts of all sizes in the state and thus they try to be as apolitical as possible as far as the big school vs. small school type stuff. Aside from all of the documentation on their webpage, a phone conversation with Brian Aust, Communications Director, or Dr. Wayne Lueders, Executive Director, would also enlighten you.


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