Investing in rural schools

Special ed dollars and broadband access top the list for rural districts

a snowy landscape with tree in center
A snowy landscape near Ridgeville, Wisconsin (Len Skar).

When Gov. Tony Evers announced his biennial budget on Tuesday, including a hefty $7.7 billion proposed for various education programs, Kim Kaukl felt like the concerns of rural Wisconsin were being heard.  

“I feel it’s a strong budget,” says Kaukl, executive director of Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance (WiRSA). “It has basically everything that our members were looking for in this budget. It checked pretty much all the boxes for us.”

Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance represents 165 rural school districts and roughly 121,500 students. Wisconsin has approximately 310 rural school districts, representing 44% of Wisconsin’s K-12 students. Kaukl believes Evers’ proposals —  including a huge boost for early childhood programs, special education funding and rural broadband services — will aid communities struggling to rebound during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Evers proposes a general per-pupil increase from the state, and his budget provides a hefty increase in special education funding of $709 million. Currently, the state covers less than 30% of districts’ special education costs; Evers’ budget proposes 45% to start, and rising to 50%.

“We are hoping to get to 60%, but this is something we’ve been pushing for forever,” says Kaukl. “What people need to understand is that this piece [of the budget] helps all schools, and it helps all students because special ed has been so underfunded at the state level for so long that many of our districts are having to use money from their general fund to offset their special ed needs.”

Kaukl is also encouraged by Evers’ plan to spend $150 million on mental health services. He says the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental and emotional health of teachers and students. “It puts stress on them and the communities, and also parents, because they’re trying to balance how to help students with virtual learning, and also doing their jobs.”

Kaukl also hopes the GOP-controlled Legislature will maintain Evers’ $20 million in “sparsity funding,” which supports districts with fewer than 745 students, especially with transportation costs. 

Although he is aware that Republican legislators are extremely critical of Evers’ budget, he wants them to understand the need for cooperation to help Wisconsin recover. “I really hope that our legislators take a very close look at this budget that the governor has put together that I really think is an investment in not just rural education, but all education.” 

Evers’ proposal to invest $200 million in increasing broadband access in rural areas is something Kaukl feels is essential for the school districts his organization represents. He says WiRSC has been pushing for this change, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has really highlighted that so many of our rural districts don’t have the connectivity to go virtual,” he explains. “That’s why many districts came back this fall with the plan to be face-to-face as much as possible, because they know that was the best way to reach all their students. A lot of people probably don’t realize the expense many of our districts went to last spring, when we were fully virtual, trying to provide hotspots for families and internet plans for families; districts were paying for those to try to get as many kids connected as possible.”

Access to broadband will not just assist schools during the pandemic; it will make rural Wisconsin a more desirable place to live and open businesses, adds Kaukl.

“If we can get good, strong broadband out in our rural areas, there are a number of people, we have found out, that can work remotely. They might want to leave the hustle and bustle of the city to raise their families in a rural area. Connectivity will draw more of those families to the rural areas, which will hopefully help us with our declining enrollment trend.”

Strong rural schools will also provide an educated workforce, which will in turn reverse the “brain drain” and attract development, says Kaukl.  “I’ve always been a believer that if I’m a company and I want to move out to a rural area, number one, I want to make sure I’ve got the connectivity for the logistics side of it,” he says. “But if I want to bring good employees in, I want to make sure I’ve got a strong school district too, that their kids could get well-educated and move on and go on to technical college, go into the workforce or go to a four-year university and continue their education.”

Kaukl, who lives outside Spring Green, says better infrastructure might motivate more of those young people to settle in rural areas. “I think a lot of people really do believe in that rural lifestyle, and the lower stress level that sometimes you feel. I always enjoy it in the evenings,” he says. “Hey, look at the stars.”