An unexpected budget surplus gives Wisconsin a golden opportunity to make investments in our children and our schools that will pay big dividends down the road. But some legislators are refusing to use a portion of the surplus to provide Wisconsin schools with the resources they need to educate today’s children and tomorrow’s workers — a shortsighted position that could damage Wisconsin’s ability to be competitive in the future.
Despite recent increases, Wisconsin’s public K-12 school districts still receive less in state aid than they did a decade ago, prior to enormous cuts to education funding. Over the past ten years, state lawmakers often chose to pass large tax cuts instead of investing the money in local schools.
Gov. Tony Evers wants to change that trend, by putting a portion of the recently announced surplus to work educating our students. His proposal addresses the chronic underfunding of Wisconsin’s schools by providing $122 million in new resources for services for students with disabilities, funding for mental health services, additional aid to schools in rural areas and for summer school programs at the state’s largest districts.
In addition to providing critical new resources for schools, the governor’s proposal includes a $130 million property tax cut, and a $409 million deposit to the state’s rainy day fund as a hedge against future recessions.
In contrast, the plan proposed by Republican legislative leaders doesn’t use even a single dollar of the surplus to improve Wisconsin’s schools. Instead, Republican legislators want to use the surplus to provide a larger tax cut than the one the governor proposed. The legislative plan includes a $269 million tax cut, consisting of a broad-based $224 million income tax cut and a $45 million property tax cut for manufacturers. (The proposed property tax cut for manufacturers comes on top of a loophole that lets manufacturers get away with paying virtually nothing in state income tax.) They also want to make a $285 million deposit to the state’s rainy day fund and use $100 million to pay down debt.
Both houses of the Legislature have approved the Republican plan. It’s now up to the governor to either go ahead and approve the tax cuts or to veto the bill and ask legislators again to take a more balanced approach that includes an increased state investment in schools. If he takes that route and Republican leaders reject his call for a special session, a veto of their tax cut bill would leave more money in the state treasury that could be used for improvements in K-12 education in next year’s budget. One bright spot is that the deposit to the rainy day fund happens automatically, at the level recommended by the governor, even if no bill is passed.
Students across Wisconsin pay the price when state lawmakers refuse to provide support for public schools. Fewer resources for schools means that students have to scrape by with outdated technology, attend classes taught by educators who are teaching outside their areas of expertise, or learn in dilapidated physical environments. In severe cases, the loss of state aid may force the closure of an entire district, forcing students to travel long distances and potentially dealing a severe blow to communities struggling to stay economically vibrant.
Deep funding cuts and misplaced priorities have threatened Wisconsin’s tradition of high-quality public schools, which have long been an engine of the state’s economic growth. To make sure that the doors of opportunity are open to everyone, Wisconsin needs to make sure that students from across the state, and particularly those in communities furthest from opportunity and communities of color, have equitable access to academic and educational resources. Legislators shouldn’t repeat history by using the surplus to prioritize giving yet another tax cut over valuing our kids’ future.