Wisconsin Taxpayer Magazine Wisconsin's Evolving Technical Colleges

January 2015  •  Vol. 83 No. 01
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  • Summary
  • Press Release
  • Wisconsin is home to the nation’s oldest technical college system, which was established in 1911 to enable residents to obtain training for technical and skilled positions and to encourage economic development. Since then, many states have established technical and community colleges of their own. The structure of these institutions varies widely by state, particularly in how they are funded and governed. This is now an issue in Wisconsin. 

  • Todd A. Berry or Stephanie Rubin

    Technical College Funding Shifts from Local to State

    State Aid Boost Reverses Long History of Local Funding

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    MADISON—Wisconsin’s technical colleges have long differed from those in most states due to their heavy reliance on local, rather than state, funding. But that changed when the state legislature increased by $406 million state aid to technical colleges to “buy down” the 2014-15 technical college property tax.
    The shift toward state funding reduced local funding by about two-thirds and prompted a new Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX) report, “Wisconsin’s Evolving Technical Colleges.” The report examines how the funding and governance of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) has changed over the years, and how it compares to other states. Now in its 84th year, WISTAX is a nonpartisan organization devoted to public policy research and citizen education.
    The bulk of Wisconsin technical college revenue historically came from local sources, primarily the property tax. Local sources accounted for 74% of non-federal WTCS revenue in 2011-12, a higher percentage than in any other state. Nationally, local sources represented just 29% of non-federal revenue. Similarly, state aid accounted for just 9% of revenue in Wisconsin that year, less than in all but two states, and well below the national average (41%).
    The effect of the large jump in state aid to technical colleges on the composition of WTCS revenues is not yet fully known. However, WISTAX researchers estimate that the additional aid will push Wisconsin to the other side of the national norm. State aid will account for an estimated 55% of non-federal technical college revenue in 2014-15. Local revenue will fall from 74% to just 28%.
    How technical and community colleges are governed goes hand in hand with how they are funded. Systems that rely heavily on state funds tend to give more power to state, rather than local, governing boards. In 28 states, two-year colleges are governed by a state board; of them, only Texas colleges (41%) received more than 18% of their revenue from local sources. Similarly, of the 25 systems that rely on the state for a majority of their revenue, 20 (80%) are governed by a statewide board.
    Despite the recent funding shift, WTCS remains unique for its local governance and independence. Systems in other states tend to place more governing authority at the state level. Their operation also tend to be in conjunction with four-year colleges and universities. The WTCS operates under a system of power sharing between a state board and individual district boards. The two work together, but local boards are generally given the freedom to operate as long as they comply with state standards.
    Additionally, the WTCS state board and the Board of Regents that oversees the University System are separate entities. This, too, is relatively uncommon. Most community and technical colleges are overseen by the state agency that governs other post-secondary institutions in the state.
    A free copy of The Wisconsin Taxpayer magazine, “Wisconsin’s Evolving Technical Colleges,” is available by visiting www.wistax.org; emailing wistax@wistax.org; calling 608.241.9789; or writing WISTAX at 401 North Lawn Ave., Madison, WI 53704-5033.  

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