Risking state’s federal funds, Republicans decimate Evers’ budget for schools

wrecked school
Wrecked school (Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash)

After voting down Democratic proposals based on Gov. Evers expansive plan to fund K-12 education on Thursday, the Republicans who control the Legislature’s budget committee gave their Democratic colleagues a 20-minute recess to read the revised GOP education budget plan.

In summary, according to Department of Administration staff who testified at the Joint Finance Committee meeting, the GOP plan makes a 0% increase in general state aid to schools in the first year of the biennial budget, followed by a 0% increase in general school aid in the second year.

It spends a total of about $128 million — a 1.1% increase from the current budget — on a handful of programs, including a reading program, libraries, a small boost in mental health services and funding for special education that the Republicans described as an increase to 30% special ed support from the state, but which, because of the way it is calculated, Democrats on the committee said would actually represent a decrease.

Republicans explained their austere approach to school funding — less than 10% of the spending Gov. Tony Evers called for in his school budget proposal — by citing the $1.5 billion in a third round of federal COVID relief money flowing into the state’s schools.

The money flowing into the state through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) will mean millions of dollars for local school districts, Republican committee members pointed out.

Evers has said that those one-time funds are specifically targeted for COVID relief and should not be used to replace the state’s commitment to funding its schools. But, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) countered, the federal funds give school districts “the ultimate flexibility.” 

“You can use it to continue to employ existing staff,” he added. (The funds will not be available after the first year, however, to pay salaries for long-term employees.)

Because Wisconsin schools are swimming in federal money, Stroebel added, it was “prudent and smart” to set aside a large chunk of school funding — $350 million — in a budget stabilization fund, to keep it safe for a rainy day. A future Legislature will have to pass separate legislation to appropriate those funds. While the Republicans say they plan to use the money for education, as part of the budget stabilization fund it can be used for any purpose. 

Returning from the quick break to read the Republican plan, Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) pointed out that the plan falls $200 million short of the 35% state funding level required by the federal government to make the state eligible to receive federal funds.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, if the state decreases the proportion of the budget spent on education, it is out of compliance with federal rules and risks losing its federal ESSER funding for schools.

 “The $1.5 billion for K-12 education you’re counting on will not happen,” Erpenbach said.

“Where are you going to make that money up?” he asked “As we move along in the process, where are you going to cut?” Why don’t Republicans just take the $350 million they are setting aside in the budget stabilization fund and put it into general school aid, he demanded. 

“At least that way, the federal money that you’re glowing about right now, you’d at least have a chance to get it. Right now you’re not getting it,” Erpenbach said. 

Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) concurred. Putting Wisconsin’s federal American Rescue Plan Act money jeopardy is “far too risky.”

Betting that the feds will change the rules

It took committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein a while to respond to that charge. First he praised what he labeled Republicans’ generous commitments to special education and mental health services, and noted that it will be good for kids to get back into the classroom. 

When he got around to the subject of the maintenance of effort requirement in federal law that the Wisconsin Republicans’ budget does not meet, Marklein said, “I fully believe the folks in Washington are going to hear the cries from every corner of this country regarding the challenges that are coming out. And I believe that, as I said, I think it was an unintended consequence, quite honestly. I think Sen. [Dale] Kooyenga mentioned that sometimes in Washington things are passed without being aware of all the consequences. And I believe that the MO —  maintenance of effort — language is going to be changed.” 

“You can be as dramatic as you want to be,” Marklein added. “I don’t believe the risk is — I’m aware of the risk, we’ve considered it, we’ll talk about it as we go through. But I think the risk is manageable.”

As in other recent education budget debates in the Legislature, much of the discussion in the Joint Finance Committee on Thursday centered on Republicans’ effort to correct what they see as an injustice: millions of dollars in Title I federal funds flowing into low-income school districts. 

While 90% of those funds are federally allocated and untouchable by the Legislature, Republicans are targeting the 10% of the funds that the state can control to school districts that remained open at least 50% of the time during the pandemic.

Republican members of the committee emphasized that they wanted to reward schools that remained open throughout the pandemic, and repeatedly invoked science showing in-person learning was better for kids. 

Kooyenga joined many of his GOP colleagues in decrying the inequity of the $11,000 per student Milwaukee Public Schools will receive in ESSER funds, compared to only $200 for smaller, wealthier districts like his own.

“I have never seen people that were so envious of the poor,” Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) commented. People in Milwaukee, with its 86% student poverty rate, would “trade with you in a heartbeat,” she said, emphasizing that the reason more money is allocated to districts like hers through the Title I program is to meet the needs of children who are living in deep poverty.

Goyke pointed out that the committee was politicizing school reopenings and punishing districts that did their best to control the spread of a deadly virus. 

One problem with this approach, Goyke pointed out, is the level of uncertainty it creates for districts that still don’t know whether or not they will qualify for the funds. “We don’t even know whether schools were open 50% of the time, because the school year isn’t over yet,” he added. 

Nothing to be proud of

“This K-12 budget is absolutely nothing to be proud of,” Erpenbach said. “And it’s certainly something I wouldn’t be talking about publicly if I were you because, again, if I can figure this out in a couple of minutes … superintendents are going to be lighting up your phone lines, advocates are gonna be lighting up your phone lines, parents will be lighting up your phone lines.” 

Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) likewise warned that Wisconsinites would not take kindly to Republicans’ approach to school funding. “This committee will not pull the wool over people’s eyes,” she said, “Because students and families can actually look around the classroom and they can feel the lack of investment. They can see how many students there are per teacher. They notice when arts education is cut. A hungry child will notice. A bilingual family will notice when there is no program available for their child. A student in a mental health crisis is not going to care about what anyone on this committee says — they are going to feel the many millions of dollars that the Republican motion cuts from the governor’s proposal.”

“And while many of the members of this committee campaigned on their support for kids and public schools,” she added, “ the best they can do is a 1.1% all funds increase. So I guess the desire to stick it to Gov. Evers is greater than the desire to keep their promises to their constituents.”

That aroused a combative response from Republican committee members.

“Stop it,” said Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma). “No schools are starving. No children are going to go without, unless school districts choose to spend their money unwisely.”

“But to sit here and even say that schools are unfunded,” she added, “How can you say that?”

Felzkowski reeled off the thousands of dollars per student various districts would receive in federal COVID relief which, she said, is many times the funding they received in recent budgets — “those were great budgets,” she claimed. “Schools loved them.” 

This led into a more general political discussion of the dangers of federal spending. To Johnson, who tartly reminded her Republican colleagues of the letter they signed asking the Wisconsin Congressional delegation to oppose federal COVID relief funds for the state (now the basis for their entire plans to fund schools), Felzkowski retorted, “You betcha.”  Her children and grandchildren should not be burdened with the debt the federal spending would create for future generations, she said.

The grip of the federal government

Kooyenga expanded on that point, laying into federal meddling in the states in general: “ I would love to meet the most powerful members of this committee, Sen. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi,” he said. 

 “I see the grip of the federal government, which is ever increasing,” Kooyenga added.

The American flag is carried into battle with the stars in front of the stripes, he pointed out, symbolizing that “We’re a republic and in a republic the states lead the way.”

None of that clarified how Wisconsin will fund its schools based on a budget document that relies heavily on federal funding yet, by spending so little on schools, renders Wisconsin ineligible for those same federal funds.

“It’s disingenuous to talk about all the federal money flowing into our schools,” Erpenbach said. Whether the state will receive those funds, based on a future rule change, is at best uncertain. All districts know for sure is the austerity budget for schools the Republicans have proposed. 

Reps. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) and Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) lamented that they had not brought their muck boots to wade through Democratic talking points, which Zimmerman said were “getting a little bit deep,” as Democrats tried to “scare people.”

Zimmerman segued into a warning about inflation, and how federal spending will drive up the national debt. 

“Our schools are going to get more. We can argue and debate the source and will it be there. It’s going to be there,” Zimmerman said. “We need to be more concerned right now with the debt that we’re throttling ourselves with.” 

State budgeting should be like budgeting in the private sector, Zimmerman added, where, instead of looking for places to increase, leaders began by looking for places to cut.

Other Republican members, including Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markeson) took a more optimistic tone, noting that the GOP reading program will be good for kids. Several members noted that they had heard people in their districts loud and clear asking for an increase in special ed funding, and had responded by increasing the rate of state reimbursement for special ed to 30% — the same figure Evers set as a goal back when he was superintendent of schools.

“If it was good enough then, why isn’t it good enough now?” said Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek)

The big difference between the 30% funding the Republicans are proposing and the 30% Evers targeted as superintendent (increasing it to 45-50% in his recent budget) is that the Republicans are not committing to fund 30% of actual needs. Instead they estimate that the $67.6 million they plan to spend on special ed in 2022-23 will bring the state reimbursement rate to about 30% of special ed costs. But if actual costs exceed that amount, there will be no additional funds. Evers had committed to a 30% funding level regardless of actual cost. While the Republicans proposed a fixed or “sum certain” funding plan for special ed, Democrats were pushing for a “sum sufficient” commitment to cover program costs.

Special ed costs have increased over time, even as the state’s portion of special ed funding has declined — a central issue for school districts which have increasingly had to cut other programs to cover the federally protected needs of special education students. 

“This appropriation is not large enough to actually realize that 30%,” Goyke said. “Wanna know how I know that? Why I’m confident in saying that? Because Republicans attempted to meet that same benchmark two years ago and didn’t.”

The Republicans are proposing that the state spend about $85 million on special ed programs over the biennium. In the last budget Evers signed, special education programs received $97 million in state aid.

Missed opportunities

Toward the end of the hearing, Goyke reeled off a list of “missed  opportunities” in the Republican budget proposal, filled with the things it cut from Evers’ plan. “Some of them are big. Some of them are small,” he said. “School breakfasts, my God. … What do you guys have against oatmeal and cereal and milk?” he asked.

Evers proposed doubling spending on school breakfasts from $2.5 million to $5 million. The Republicans cut that item, along with money for subsidized school lunches, English language learners, drivers’ ed, additional support for kids living in poverty, four-year-old kindergarten and aid to districts with declining enrollments.

But the biggest missed opportunity, Goyke said, is that the latest revenue projections show the state has plenty of money to meet those needs — even apart from the large infusion of COVID relief cash from the feds. “We have $2 billion; we can meet the needs of our school districts. We have the dollars going forward to do this,” Goyke said.

The committee then took a straight party line vote and passed the Republican plan.