Public school advocates meet after bruising budget battle
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash
One week after the Wisconsin Legislature gaveled in and out of a special session on school funding called by Gov. Tony Evers without taking any action, Evers told a statewide group of public school advocates that the state budget he signed is “nowhere near where we should be,” when it comes to supporting education.
Speaking to the Wisconsin Public Education Network Summer Summit at Sun Prairie High School on Monday, Evers said that vetoing the whole budget would have jeopardized $2.3 billion in federal funding if the Legislature refused to come back to the table and renegotiate. “And I can guarantee you they would not have come back in,” he added. Still, the final budget was crafted based on a “false choice” between investing in the needs and priorities of the state and saving tax dollars.
Despite publicly campaigning on signing the Republicans’ “historic tax cut” into law, as well as the handful of line-item vetoes he was able to make allocating a little more money for schools, Evers acknowledged to the group of public school officials, activists, teachers, and policy experts that the final result was disappointing.
There is enough money available to cut taxes while still meeting the goal of two-thirds state funding for schools, he said. But the Legislature sat on $550 million in education funding it had tried to transfer to the state’s rainy day fund, refusing to act even after Evers moved the money back into the general fund, and asked the Legislature to spend it on schools. And that’s just a portion of the $5 billion surplus piling up in state coffers over the next few years.
Instead of meeting the urgent needs of the state, Republicans in the Legislature are leaving schools in unnecessarily straitened circumstances. And, as the new delta variant of COVID-19 pushes up the rate of infection and hospitalization, legislators are insisting that schools use federal COVID relief money to fund basic operations instead of paying for pandemic-related expenses.
“The answer, frankly, is fair maps,” Evers said, referring to the once-every-10-years process of redrawing voting maps, based on census data that is expected to become available this month. Wisconsin’s gerrymandered political maps have locked a Republican majority in power in the Legislature, even when most votes cast statewide go to Democrats. The result is that legislators in safe, gerrymandered seats are not responsive to public pressure.
State schools superintendent Jill Underly, who spoke at the public school event before Evers, also had strong words for the Legislature.
“For the first time in my memory, Wisconsin has more than enough money to make game-changing investments in education,” she said, yet the Legislature has refused to adequately fund schools. “The Legislature is telling districts that despite the budget surplus, they are not going to get the money they need.”
Wisconsin schoolchildren have endured “more than a decade of austerity” Undery added, pointing to the graduating class of 2020, whose members, she said, “knew nothing other than cuts” during their entire time as students. “We’re failing our kids,” she concluded.
She invoked Wisconsin’s “deep commitment to public education, early childhood and higher education” including the nation’s first kindergarten, which started in Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Idea that the state university system should serve the public.
“Our schools need a champion,” she said, standing in the hallway outside the Sun Prairie High School auditorium after her speech.
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She was explaining why she released an unusually strong statement for a state superintendent last week, urging school board members and school officials and parents around the state to call their legislators and press them to take up the governor’s call to increase school funding.
“I’ve been in the schools. I’ve seen first-hand what the policies are doing,” she added,
She is particularly concerned about what she calls the “widespread misunderstanding” that federal COVID relief funds can be used in place of state support, as Republican legislators have claimed, to fund schools’ general operations.
“COVID relief doesn’t keep your lights on or pay teachers,” she said, “those costs go up every year and there’s no increase for that” in the state budget.
Each federal COVID relief bill has been targeted for very specific expenditures, she explained. The first of three rounds of relief covered personal protective equipment and hygiene. The second covered infrastructure improvements, including new HVAC systems to clean the air and prevent airborne infection. The final COVID package targeted help for kids who experienced learning loss during the pandemic, including enrichment and tutoring programs.
Schools will run afoul of federal rules if they try to spend that COVID relief money on salaries and school supplies, Underly explained. And besides, they need it to help to address urgent issues created by the pandemic. “So many school districts are starting in the red — the general public needs to understand that,” she added.
Underly agrees with Evers that redistricting is ultimately the answer for Wisconsin schools.
“Some people in the Legislature are tone deaf, in their own echo chambers,” she said. Because of gerrymandering they don’t have to listen to anyone who disagrees with them. Yet, she said, “there is this silent majority of people who are not speaking up because they think it won’t make a difference.”
That’s why she has been urging school officials to contact their legislators.
“One thing people want is they want schools to be open, face to face. The vast majority of kids and parents want that. And to do that we need to kick this virus,” she said.
Unless the state embraces common-sense measures to control the spread of COVID-19 and its new variants, “we are going to be caught in an endless cycle, and that’s not good for anyone.”
Later in the day, after Evers and Underly addressed the public school advocates, a panel of citizens from Fox Valley held a breakout session titled “Closing the Gap with Legislators,” in which they discussed their efforts to communicate with their elected representatives.
The Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education discussed their meetings with five members of the Assembly to push for public school funding. “In our part of Wisconsin we have a tough row to hoe,” said Nancy Jones, a retired teacher from the Appleton school district. The area covered by the Fox Cities group is heavily gerrymandered, with four out of five Assembly districts represented by Republicans.
Jim Bowman, a member of the Appleton school board, explained how federally mandated special education costs are devouring the local schools budget. “Each year we transfer $23 million from the general funds to special ed,” he said. “So kids without special needs are losing.”
Bowman and the other Fox Cities advocates described their meetings with legislators, who appeared friendly and agreed with them about special education funding and other issues, including the need for more mental health services.
One representative had the group in tears, describing how he and his family had helped the family of a child with special needs. But after the meeting, he supported the Republican budget, rejecting Evers’ full funding for special ed.
Another legislator said she was very supportive of mental health funding, and told personal stories about her work as a nurse who saw the need for better mental health care. But her support faded during the budget process.
Still, the advocates said they remained determined to keep building relationships with their legislators and recruiting allies to join in the fight, including church groups and other citizens who care about the wellbeing of children.
Expanding the size and power of the pro-public-school movement was the theme of the group’s keynote speech by Keron Blair, the national director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, who fired up the group with an address delivered on a jumbo screen in the auditorium via Zoom from Atlanta.
The struggle to adequately fund schools, and to close achievement gaps is not really a financial question, but a question of political will, Blair told the group. “This is not about can we do it; it’s about will we do it,” he said.
Public school advocates have to make it “political suicide” not to support education, he declared. And the only way to do that is to build power by recruiting more people to the cause.
“There is nothing bold or radical about saying educators should be paid well and children should be taught the truth — the whole truth — about the history of our country and contemporary politics,” Blair said. “These are literally common-sense demands.”
Well-funded schools and curriculum that prepares students to meaningfully participate in democracy should be universal goals, he added.
“We have to be dissatisfied with holding the majority opinion but not being able to move policy,” he said, adding, “Our communities and our schools continue to be plagued by challenges that we know how to solve.”
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