Republicans’ school budget shell game

shell game
Shell game on the Pont des Arts, Paris, France. Photo by Emily Becker | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The proposed state budget for schools passed by the Legislature’s budget committee is so stingy, the federal government is seriously considering withdrawing $1.5 billion from our state because we don’t make an adequate investment in our own kids. 

But you’d never know that from the press releases put out by GOP budget committee members, crowing about their “historic increases in funding” for Wisconsin Public Schools..

“Year after year, we have invested in our kids, our teachers and our schools. This year is no different,” Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein wrote in his weekly email newsletter to constituents on Friday, spinning the GOP budget to tout “historic increases” for student mental health, special ed and other programs — with special extra funding for schools that “stepped up” to keep buildings open throughout the pandemic (as if online classes were just a lazy way out for teachers who wanted to stay home, instead of a public health measure to stop the spread of COVID-19).

Marklein included a bar graph in his newsletter showing K-12 spending in the last four state budgets dwarfed by the $2.6 billion in federal COVID relief money targeted at Wisconsin schools this year. “Again, we invested $150.5 million in Education on top of a deluge of Federal funding for schools and higher education,” Marklein declares. 

What he doesn’t tell you is that the same day he sent out his newsletter, the U.S. Department of Education informed the state that it is considering shutting off the flow of federal money to Wisconsin. That’s because the GOP budget violates the rules that say the state has to maintain historical levels of investment in public education in order to qualify for federal COVID relief funds. The GOP budget fails to do this. Instead, it basically substitutes one-time federal COVID relief funding for state school spending. That’s not allowed. So now we might not get the federal funds that are the whole basis for the Republican claim to be putting a lot of money into schools. The truth, pointed out by the feds, is that they have created a historically stingy school budget.

As Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network puts it, “the largest portion of the proclaimed funding for schools is actually an accounting trick that puts federal COVID relief funds at risk.”

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Or as Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) told his Republican colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee, after reading their proposal, the GOP members were basically performing a really dumb card trick, moving money around so it would look like they were increasing education spending while actually decimating school funding, but in a way that was so obvious anyone could see what they were doing.

Gov. Tony Evers said on Tuesday that he might veto the whole budget unless the Legislature adds more money for schools. “What they invested was paltry and an insult to the kids of our state,” Evers said.

It wouldn’t be very hard for the Republicans to get us back in compliance with federal law so schools don’t miss out on the $1.5 billion in the next round of COVID relief, along with $212 million in federal Title I money for  low-income students, which the feds have also  informed the state are at risk because of the stingy GOP budget. 

The easiest way for the Republicans to fix the problem would be not to put $350 million in education funds into a rainy day fund where the money can be used for other purposes, as their budget unaccountably does.

But Republicans do not appear likely to make that change. Confronted with the likelihood that the GOP budget would jeopardize federal funds, Marklein said he was aware of the problem, but thought the feds might change the rules, and anyway “I think the risk is manageable.” 

On Friday he was still whistling past the graveyard, sending out his sunny newsletter to constituents and neglecting to mention that the federal funds might not come through.

Other Republicans on the committee also had glowing things to say about all the money they’d committed to their public school districts — even when local school officials begged to differ.

In a tart response to desperate school officials in her home district of South Milwaukee, who were appalled to learn from state Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) that the Republicans plan to increase school funding by barely 1% — less than one-tenth of the funding Evers had asked for —  and that schools are expected to make do with one-time federal funds to cover recurring costs, Rodriguez wrote, “I would also remind Dr. [Jeffrey] Weiss” — South Milwaukee schools superintendent — “that our plan moves $350 million into the Budget Stabilization Fund which can be used in the future so that the one-time funds do not create a budget hole.” 

Or, on the other hand, that money can be used in the future to fund things Republican legislators actually care about — like tax cuts targeted at the wealthy. Now that they’ve converted it into a rainy day fund, it will take a full vote of the Legislature to allocate that money to whatever purpose they choose. Do you trust these people to spend the money on kids?

If the divisive, incredibly politicized school budget debate shows anything it’s that Republican legislators cannot be trusted when they say they plan to support local schools. They talk out both sides of their mouths — bragging to their constituents about how they care about and will continue to fund schools, meanwhile recklessly defunding education. The worst part is that the state has the money to truly invest in schools. Revenue projections show the state will have a $2.5 billion surplus by the end of the next budget cycle. There is no reason for Wisconsin schools to experience the austerity measures they are imposing.

The punitive effort to reallocate more funds to schools that Republicans say should be rewarded for keeping classrooms open during the pandemic is just a gratuitous swipe at Milwaukee and Madison — punishing kids who live in those cities for decisions they had no control over, and that were sensible efforts to stop the spread of disease.

Want to know how arbitrary and capricious the reallocation of funds to schools that remained open was? Legislative Republicans extended it to one school that hasn’t even opened yet: the Lincoln Academy in Beloit, a charter school started by billionaire Republican donor Diane Hendricks. The school is still under construction, slated to open in the fall, so the argument that it deserves a special reward for educating students in-person during the pandemic is a bit of a stretch. But that didn’t slow down legislative Republicans, who lavished praise on the charter, which will pull students from the Beloit public schools, which, under their plan, stand to lose both COVID relief and Title I funding.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) spoke in favor of the special treatment for Lincoln Academy during budget deliberations, pointing out that it will draw students from high-poverty local schools that “are treated favorably under Title 1.”

“We’re not asking for them to have special consideration for being in person. We’re asking for them to have at least a minimum so that they can address learning loss and other needs of these scholars who will be attending there in the fall.”

In this upside-down view, the shiny new academy with a billionaire patron that will draw students from a high poverty district is unfairly disadvantaged, because the high-poverty public schools in the area receive federal funds to help students with high needs.

This argument was too much for Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), who took off her mask so her Republican colleagues could hear her, explaining what Title I is: “kids are living in poverty — higher poverty, more public dollars. Less poverty, lower public dollars,” she said.

“Children do not choose to be born poor, or with a disability,” she added, decrying the “resentful tone” about poor children who receive Title I funding.

None of that will matter, of course, if the Republicans’ make Wisconsin ineligible for all sorts of federal funds. Kids and communities all over the state, rural, urban and suburban alike, will all suffer under the Republicans’ austerity budget for schools.

If they were honest, legislative Republicans would put that in their press releases.

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.