GOP’s ‘historic investment’ in public schools fails to fill gaps

By: - July 16, 2019 7:15 am
Bailey LeRoy and her mother, Tara LeRoy, participated in a march on the Capitol in June to publicize the funding needs of the state's schools. Bailey is a fifth grader at Palmyra-Eagle Elementary, which has been threatened with closure because of lack of funds. (Photo courtesy of Tara LeRoy.)

Bailey LeRoy and her mother, Tara LeRoy, participated in a march on the Capitol in June to publicize the funding needs of the state’s schools. Bailey is a fifth grader at Palmyra-Eagle Elementary, which has been threatened with closure because of lack of funds. (Photo courtesy of Tara LeRoy.)

One of Gov. Tony Evers’ trickier maneuvers in his budget battle with the Republican legislature was to use the line-item veto to actually increase school spending. By crossing out the first year of the legislature’s education spending in the biennial budget, Evers effectively expanded an increase slated for the second year, adding $65 million more than the Republicans had allocated for schools.

It was a deft move by the former superintendent of the state’s public schools, even if the final education budget still falls more than $800 million short of what Evers originally proposed.

“I strongly considered vetoing the legislature’s entire budget because it did not do enough to ensure that our kids and schools have the resources they need to be successful,” Evers wrote in the 65-page statement he released upon delivering the partially vetoed budget to the Secretary of State.

In the end, Evers decided to take a pragmatic approach.

The result disappointed public-school advocates, who were excited by the governor’s original, ambitious budget and his vision for ending an era of austerity and unequal funding for public schools.

School districts had reason for hope. Most of the governor’s major budget requests overlapped with the recommendations of a bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. After a year of public hearings throughout the state, the 16-member commission, made up of nine legislators and seven leaders in the education field, issued a report in January on how tax dollars are distributed and how to better meet the needs of students. The commission called for increased spending on special education, mental health, and high-poverty students. It called for restoring increases in revenue limits that used to keep pace with inflation, and it recommended that the state re-commit to funding two-thirds of school costs.

Deep cuts in recent years have left Wisconsin schools with a total of $3.5 billion less in 2019 than they would have had if the state had continued to provide funding at the same level that it did in 2011, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project.

Special ed funding gets tiny increase

Never mind the “historic investment” in education Assembly Speaker Robin Vos claimed the Republicans were making in their budget. The budget Evers signed, even after his line-item vetoes, does not even get Wisconsin schools back to where they were a decade ago.

Special education funding, which has been frozen since 2009, will finally increase, but only by the $95 million Republicans proposed.

This is significantly less than what the governor, and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, wanted.

Instead of going up by 30% next year and 60% in the second year, as Evers and state school officials proposed, special ed funding will increase by 26% in the first year and 30% after that.

To put those numbers in perspective: The current reimbursement rate has dropped from 29% in 2007, and Wisconsin once reimbursed at 70%.

Over the last decade, schools have paid more and more out of their general funds to cover the shortfall in state aid. That’s because special education funding is mandatory: School districts have to pay for it, even if the state doesn’t cover the cost. That will continue to be the case for school districts with large numbers of special-ed students — including private-school students whose special-ed costs are also the responsibility of the public schools. The annual “funding gap” for special education has now crossed the billion dollar mark — a billion dollars in general funds used every year to cover basic special ed services not reimbursed by state or federal funds.

Disparity between private, public schools

Incredibly, Republicans in the legislature set the reimbursement rate for special-needs voucher students who attend private schools at 90%, even as they kept the public-school reimbursement rate low.

That disparity prompted school districts around the state to pass resolutions demanding the same 90% funding for special ed in the public-schools.

Two groups of kids who suffer from Wisconsin’s biggest gaps — children living in poverty and English language learners — will get no relief at all under the current budget. The removal of bilingual/bicultural aid will fall particularly hard on rural districts that have small numbers of English Language Learners, and who do not have the money to hire staff to meet their needs.

On the plus side, finishing the budget on time takes an enormous amount of pressure off school officials and board members, who were facing the prospect of starting the school year without knowing how much money they had to pay staff or keep school buildings open. That’s one reason some superintendents were in favor of Evers signing the legislature’s budget, while some disappointed grassroots activists thought he ought to veto the whole thing.

If Evers had vetoed the entire budget, Assembly Speaker Vos threatened that the legislature would not return until Oct. 15 — leaving school districts in an untenable position, not knowing how much money they had to pay staff or keep buildings open for the year, and pushing them right up to the wire for setting their 2019-2020 budgets, which are certified by the state on Oct. 15.

There are other advances in the current budget: In addition to giving school districts more money than last year, it lifts revenue caps for the first time since Scott Walker was governor. That’s a big deal, because revenue caps, which were frozen under Walker, limit how much school districts can spend. Even if the state increases aid to districts, if revenue caps stay the same, the result is lower taxes, not more money in the classroom.

In his veto message, Evers declared, “we cannot continue asking folks to tax themselves at the local level to pay for priorities the state should fund.”

But for some school districts, it is too little, too late.

‘An unfortunate victim’

The day before Evers signed the budget, the Palmyra-Eagle school board voted to dissolve its entire school district because of lack of funds.

The rural school district, in the glacial hills and prairies near the Kettle Moraine State Forest, failed to pass a referendum last April, asking residents to tax themselves $11.5 million over four years to keep the schools open.

In June, the Wisconsin Public Education Network organized a march that began in Palmyra and ended at the Capitol building in Madison to publicize the plight of schools that are on the razor’s edge after years of deep cuts.

“It breaks my heart,” Palmyra-Eagle parent Tara LeRoy told the crowd as the march began. “Our district has become an unfortunate victim and a prime example of just how inadequate our current system is.”

“We’re not just closing one or two schools,” LeRoy added. “Our entire district — 760 kids and their families — will lose what we all love so much.”

Families from the Palmyra-Eagle school district marched on the capital in June to raise awareness for the need for school funding. (Photo courtesy of the Eagle and Palmyra, Together Forever Facebook group)

The district, which received five stars, the state’s highest performance rating, was struggling with declining enrollment and low property values. Parents, teachers, and students went door to door in their failed effort to raise the money to keep the district alive.

“Our kids have been praying for a miracle to save it,” LeRoy said. “And we have all been in tears since the April vote failed. We have had elementary kids, kindergartners, first graders, offering up their piggy banks and having lunchtime conversations about how many cupcakes they have to sell to save our schools.”

Standing on the steps of the Capitol at the end of the 60-mile march, Tara and her daughter, Bailey, said they didn’t know what would happen after next year. Bailey will attend fifth grade at Palmyra-Eagle Elementary in 2019-2020 — the last year before the school closes its doors. Her classmates will likely scatter to schools in neighboring districts.

“I’m going to miss all my friends and my teachers,” Bailey said.

“We lose one of our biggest employers. The school is literally the heart of our town,” LeRoy added. Her family moved back to Palmyra, where her husband grew up, she said, to live on a farm. “We value the things you get from a rural school,” she said.

‘Getting not enough feels like a victory’

A few feet away, outside the Capitol, a group of public school advocates from Milwaukee commiserated with parents from rural schools.

“Everyone is in the same boat together,” said Marva Herndon, a Milwaukee school board member and longtime public school activist. “Remember we used to say, ‘Today it’s Milwaukee, tomorrow it’s going to be you?’ Now it’s everyone.”

Evers’s original budget proposal included a fair-funding formula that would direct more money to rural and high-poverty urban schools, with the goal of reinstating the state’s commitment to cover two-thirds of public-school costs.

Those structural changes are not part of the current budget.

“Now we’re locked into two more years of the status quo that hurts kids and communities,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “When I see statements of gratitude from school districts and superintendents, I get it, but it’s criminally depressing. We’ve become so accustomed to getting less every year that getting ‘not enough’ feels like a victory.”

Still, given the rock-and-a-hard place position the governor was in, DuBois Bourenane doesn’t blame him. “Our whole mantra is stop playing politics with our kids,” she said. “I do appreciate Evers not being willing to use schools in a long, drawn-out fight.”

As for the partial veto, “It was a clever move that made the budget better and might even have moved the needle enough that we keep pace with the cost of inflation next year. But it could have been so much better.

“Incremental change is a bitter pill for the kids who are hurting now,” she added. “Our kids are counting on us to transform a system that values some students more than others. We’ve got a lot more work to do.”


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.