More politics than financial talk in school budget hearing

By: - April 7, 2021 7:00 am
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor testifies before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee on April 6, 2021 (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor testifies before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on April 6, 2021 (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee launched the first in a series of biennial budget agency briefings on Tuesday with an aggressive attack on Gov. Tony Evers’ entire budget proposal. The Evers budget is “irresponsible” Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) declared, and “reverses ten years of sound fiscal policy.”

Sen. Howard Marklein speaks during the Joint Finance Committee hearing
(Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)

“Our reforms over the last ten years have put us in the best financial shape in the history of our state,” Marklein boasted echoing the GOP’s top fiscal talking point. “It is concerning that this proposal reverses years of progress in just two short years.”

Testifying into this strong headwind, in what will likely be her last appearance before the committee, departing State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor made her pitch for returning to the level of funding Wisconsin schools enjoyed under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who signed a law committing the state to two-thirds funding for all public schools which lasted from the mid 1990s until 2003.

Reversing the effects of the historic cuts to education made by the more recent Republican former Gov. Scott Walker — the budgeting Marklein touted — will require a bigger investment than the $95 million increase in special ed funding that made it into the current budget  —  the first such increase in a decade. In the second budget proposal since taking office, Evers has upped special ed funding to $709 million — a sum Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) described as “not realistic,” and asked Stanford Taylor what she thought. “Yes I believe we need to fund special ed and take that off the backs of other programs,” she replied.

Jill Underly, who will succeed Stanford Taylor as state superintendent in July, after winning the election on Tuesday, agrees that the state should restore two-thirds funding.

School funding referenda passed throughout Wisconsin, in which local property taxpayers have voted to raise their own taxes, show public support for the idea of increasing school funding, Underly said. “We’ve seen it in referendums and taxpayers increasing their local tax burden because the state hasn’t been delivering on its two-thirds funding promise. So yes, I would agree with Carolyn Sanford Taylor that we do need to return to that,” she said.

If, instead of reimbursing school districts for special education services at the current rate of 28 cents on the dollar, the state honored the Thompson-era commitment to cover two-thirds of schools’ special education costs, districts could stop taking money for special education out of their general funds, requiring cuts to all sorts of other programs to meet this federally mandated obligation. 

Carolyn Stanford Taylor via DPI media page official headshot
Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor (Photo courtesy of DPI)

“To best meet the needs of all students we must restore two-thirds funding for education,” Stanford Taylor said. “Former Governor Tommy Thompson first made this commitment in an effort to equalize the financial resources available to school districts by decreasing the reliance on property taxes. It is an important commitment by the state to return to this promise.”

Without the burden of covering the costs of the federal special education mandate on their own, school districts would be able to fund new programs. “Those dollars that are freed up could be used for … art, could be used for AP classes, it could be used for enrichment classes, extended learning opportunities for students,” Stanford Taylor explained. 

With more state support for special education, districts could also address urgent unmet needs, she added. “If it’s for their homeless population, maybe they hire additional staff. All of those things that they might not have been able to do previously because they’ve had to meet this mandate for providing those services, those dollars can be turned around and used to do.”

Among the priorities Stanford Taylor laid out in her opening statement were improving reading with a statewide phonics program, fully funding school breakfast programs so that kids who are hungry do not have to feel ashamed that they cannot afford food, and supporting the mental health of Wisconsin high school students, 59% of whom reported depression, anxiety, self-harm or suicidal thoughts before the pandemic. “Closing the largest achievement gap in the country between Black and white students is not easy work,” she added.

But for most of the hearing, the committee did not focus on Stanford Taylor’s priorities or the Evers administration’s education budget proposal. Instead, Stanford Taylor fielded questions about whether school districts should be penalized for not holding in-person classroom instruction during the pandemic and whether she thinks it was unfair for the federal government to provide more money for COVID relief to urban districts than it gave to rural and suburban schools. 

Neither the federal funds, which are governed by Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, nor school reopening plans, which are made by local school boards, fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Instruction, the agency Stanford Taylor leads. 

Still, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) pressed her on whether DPI had done enough to encourage school districts to return to in-person instruction. Other members of the committee repeatedly returned to the issue of whether large, urban school districts should have brought kids into classrooms sooner, as smaller rural districts did. Marklein also wanted to know how many DPI employees were working from home and whether their productivity was being monitored.

Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) asked, “What is your plan to get all schools to open in person this fall?” Local school districts across the state are planning to have in-person instruction in the fall. But this is not a DPI directive.

Rep. Katsma
(Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

Rep. Terry Katsma (R-Oostburg) asked Stanford Taylor to weigh in on whether marijuana is bad for kids, and therefore the governor’s plan to legalize it should be stopped. (Evers hasn’t asked her for advice on that, Stanford Taylor said.) 

Rodriguez and several other committee members tried to draw out Stanford Taylor on whether Evers was wrong to pause the expansion of Wisconsin’s school choice program, under which taxpayers subsidies private school families’ tuition payments.

“If we as a state are committed to fund two school systems, we need to commit to adequately fund them both,” she said. But, she pointed out, DPI’s budget proposal made no change to the current school choice programs.

The committee chairs highlighted the fact that schools in Wisconsin received billions of dollars in federal support to address the pandemic. “The impact of this federal money is hard to fathom,” Marklein said. “ And it looks like there is even more on the way. …. We cannot ignore it, as we craft our budget.”

But Stanford Taylor asked that the committee take into account that the $2.4 billion in federal pandemic relief Wisconsin schools have received was needed for significant one-time expenses, including improving building ventilation and setting up classrooms and buses to meet social distancing rules, and that the money is not going to keep coming. “While these federal dollars will help our education system recover from the effects of the pandemic, they are one-time funds,” she said.

Marklein asked if Stanford Taylor thought it was fair that Milwaukee Public Schools received a total of $11,000 per pupil in three rounds of federal COVID relief, while the Lancaster school district in his area only received about $2,000 per pupil. And, he noted, Lancaster had been “in person in every grade every day.”

“Are you saying the pandemic impacted the Milwaukee Public Schools five times worse than it did the schools in Lancaster?” Marklein demanded. 

“It’s a larger lift for a Milwaukee than perhaps a Lancaster,” Stanford Taylor said mildly. 

According to the most recent state school report cards, Lancaster’s high-achieving elementary, middle and high school serve 963 students, 39% of whom are economically disadvantaged. Milwaukee Public Schools serve 75,431 students, 83% of whom are economically disadvantaged. Aging buildings and significant transportation and infrastructure issues, as well as problems like homelessness also make the situation faced by Milwaukee considerably more complicated.

(Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)

Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) continued the argument. “You have school districts getting fifty times more money than other districts, and they were open,” he said. “Do you think that allocation is fair?” He pointed to the example of the suburban Wauwatosa School District, which did not receive as much federal aid as Milwaukee Public Schools.

His argument ignored the fact that federal Title I funds are distributed based on a federal government formula that takes into account the poverty rate of districts. 

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) pointed out that in some parts of Milwaukee the average resale value of a house is $4,300 compared with $200,000 for a house in Wauwatosa — a significant figure, as local public schools are largely funded through local property taxes. “That’s why it’s imperative that communities get additional funding beyond property taxes and also federal funds,” she said.

Making a plea to refocus the hearing on school funding for the next biennium and to look forward, instead of arguing over the politics of federal pandemic aid, Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) noted that the Title I formula was the same under President Donald Trump.

The tone of much of the hearing remained divisive, with a strong rural-versus-urban subtext. Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) asked if Stanford Taylor had visited the schools in her senate district, in the top third of the state.  “As you gave your original testimony, you talked a lot about injustice and inequality,” she said. “I take it, and maybe I’m assuming wrong, but when I heard you speaking to that I think what you were referring to a lot is minority students and the inequalities that surround them.”

The school districts in her area face enormous transportation costs, Felzkowski said. “Where are we helping the injustices of those northern rural schools?”

Among DPI’s budget recommendations adopted by the governor are funds targeted specifically at rural districts, including sparsity aid, to help with transportation costs where the population is spread out, Erin Fath, director of DPI’s policy and budget team testified. 

“Rural areas are similar to urban areas,” in the challenges they face, Stanford Taylor added, noting that both rural and urban districts have high numbers of students in poverty, English language learners and special education students.

Public school advocates have made this point repeatedly in recent years, banding together to lobby for increased funding, particularly for special education.

But many members of the Joint Finance Committee were more focused on political wedge issues than a unifying vision for funding schools.

Returning to the reopening theme, Katsma mistakenly stated that there have been “zero fatalities in kids under 20” from COVID, saying this fact called into question whether school districts should be spending money on new HVAC systems and other expensive fixes to stop the spread of the virus.

Stanford Taylor pointed to the death of a Madison East High School student from COVID-19. And Fath reminded Katsma “we have to remember there are adults in school, too.”

Kurtz asked Stanford Taylor if she could envision a scenario where a school refuses to open because it doesn’t have a new HVAC system installed yet. 

“Just the opposite,” Stanford-Taylor replied. In her meetings with local school officials, she said, all the talk is about how to extend days and make up for lost instruction time.

“That’s good to hear,” said Kurtz.

State politics have become so divisive that Republican committee members seemed at times to forget that the pandemic, not Democratic politicians or teachers, drove students out of classrooms, and that school staff want to go back as soon as it’s safe. 

Occasionally during the hearing political ideology gave way to a spirit of cooperation. Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) praised Stanford Taylor’s support for reading and phonics, and urged the expansion of gifted and talented programs. “We need to customize education,” she said. She used the example of her son, who built a hovercraft and knew how to take apart a small engine, but didn’t do well in reading. “I think we need different priorities,” she said.

This prompted Erpenbach to return, in exasperation, to the elephant in the room. “Gifted and talented is great,” he exclaimed. “It’s not a mandate. Special ed is a mandate.” Unless the state commits to fund special education, schools won’t have the money for gifted and talented programs, he pointed out. 

Rep. Mark Born
(Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

A maskless JFC co-chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) wrapped up the hearing by thanking Stanford Taylor for her years of service, and pressing her on a few points: Wouldn’t she agree that in-person instruction is better than virtual instruction? After all, she herself said that the achievement gap got worse during the pandemic. Would she disagree with the governor’s proposal “to limit choice for low-income families, especially in Milwaukee?” And, “Is it appropriate for schools to avoid repercussions” by receiving funding even if their enrollments dropped during the pandemic?

Stanford Taylor didn’t take the bait. “I want to make clear every district provided some continuing education for their kids. Kids were educated, whether it was virtual, hybrid or in person,” she said. “And this idea of punishing districts or saying it’s the repercussion of them making the decision not to go in person really is a false kind of precept, I guess, because there’s an expense in all of this.”

“Is there a benefit to in-person? I do believe that, yes,” she added. “But we were in a totally different situation here that we all had to work ourselves through.” 

On school choice — a huge political fight the Evers administration has clearly chosen not to expend its energy on at the moment, Stanford Taylor simply reiterated,  “If we are committed to two parallel systems of education, then we need to adequately fund both.”

Calm and agreeable but firm to the end, Stanford Taylor concurred that getting back to normal is the goal. “The ultimate goal is yes, let’s let’s get back to school, let’s get back to some normalcy, but we want to mitigate the risks.”

And with that, Stanford Taylor walked out the door.

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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 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 graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.