Advocates plead with legislators to take up school funding in governor’s special session

local officials high fiving kids on the first day of school
Back to School welcome 2019 with Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Mandela Barnes and Tony Evers (courtesy of Office of Gov. Evers)

Gov. Tony Evers has called on the Legislature to meet in special session on Tuesday at 1 p.m. to take up his plan to spend part of the potential budget surplus to reduce local property taxes and increase state funding for public schools.

Evers wants legislators to consider using $252 million of a projected $451.9 million budget surplus to restore the state’s commitment to fund two-thirds of public-school costs, effectively shifting the burden off local property taxpayers, who have been going to referendum and raising their own taxes to cover school budget shortfalls.

“It’s such a good proposal,” says public school advocate Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “In a different time, both parties would be clamoring to say, ‘This is what we want to do — you get a tax break and do good things for kids at the same time.”

But the extreme partisanship in the Capitol, with the Republican legislative leadership gaveling in and gaveling out of special sessions called by the governor without debate, and making some disparaging comments about the current proposal as soon as it was announced, makes advocates less than optimistic. 

“Will this legislature gavel in and gavel out on students with disabilities?” asked Dubois Bourenane. “We’re about to find out.”

Still, even if the special session doesn’t yield passage of the governor’s proposals, the same ideas could come up again in other ways—including as Republican-sponsored measures.

In fact, they already have. 

It was Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson who first made the commitment to fund two-thirds of K-12 public schools back in the mid-1990s. Both Evers and former Gov. Scott Walker campaigned on restoring that Thompson-era promise, and Assembly Republicans declared it a priority to restore two-thirds funding to schools in a list of goals for the session they sent to the governor in 2019.

Most of the rest of Evers’ proposals come out of recommendations made by the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, co-chaired by Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) and Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon). This includes increasing the state reimbursement for special education costs to 30%. 

(Neither Kitchens nor Olsen returned messages asking for comment on the governor’s school proposal. This story will be updated with any comments received after it is published Tuesday.)

Because special-education funding is mandated by federal law, schools across the state have to dip into other funds to make up the gap between special ed costs and the current 26% state reimbursement.

“Districts have been calling for a 90% reimbursement, because that’s how much students at private voucher schools get,” DuBois Bourenane points out.

Evers’ other ideas, including more funding for school-based mental health services, $10 million in sparsity aid for rural schools with low enrollment, and $130 million in property tax relief through equalization aid are also Republican ideas.

In the case of mental health services, the amount Evers is proposing would cover grant requests by schools that the state turned down because there wasn’t enough money to cover costs. 

A chart provided by the governor’s office with an estimated district by district breakdown of the additional $79.1 million for special education funding can be found here.

An estimated district by district breakdown of the 83 eligible districts for the second tier of sparsity aid Evers is proposing can be found here

The increases in sparsity aid alone, ranging from $76,000 to $300,000 could make a significant difference in small, rural districts, allowing them to add staff.

“The governor’s proposal is a win-win for both our students and our taxpayers as it increases resources and opportunities for all children AND reduces property taxes,” the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance (WiRSA) stated in a press release thanking Evers for putting forward the plan. Rural schools advocates asked legislators to “take the time to review this closely and see how it clearly aligns with many bi-partisan initiatives already being discussed.”

“We also encourage all legislators to meet with their local school leaders, teachers and school boards to see how this proposal will positively impact all children,” the statement added. “It is time to do what is right and invest in and develop our state’s future workforce.”

Wisconsin currently has one school counselor for every 459 students, a ratio counselors say makes it hard to meet students’ mental health needs.

“Let’s just take a little bit of the money we found in the couch cushions and do the right thing for once,” says DuBois Bourenane. “People say ‘it’s only one-time aid.’ So what? Our kids only get to be kids one time. They don’t get another chance.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.