Gov. Tony Evers and State Superintendent Jill Underly read “I Love Wisconsin: An ABC Adventure” to Caddie Woodlawn Elementary second graders in Durand, Wis. on Sept. 5 2022 | Photo courtesy Gov. Evers official Facebook page
On Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers and state schools superintendent Jill Underly joined a first day of school kickoff celebration in Milwaukee and released key provisions of an education budget plan they say they will submit to the Legislature early next year if Evers is reelected.
The plan increases education spending by nearly $2 billion, drawing on the record budget surplus to put more money toward schools.
In the last two-year budget passed by the Legislature and signed by Evers there was effectively no increase in state money flowing to public schools. Republican legislative leaders cited federal pandemic relief funds and said school districts should use that money to cover their operating costs. When the lack of state funding for schools prompted a warning from the federal Department of Education that Wisconsin could lose billions in federal funding for failing to maintain its effort to fund its schools, the Legislature put some additional state funding into education. But that money did not reach classrooms. It could only be used by local school districts to fund a property tax cut, because the Legislature didn’t increase revenue limits that hold down spending by local districts.
“Last year, Republicans in the Legislature rewrote Gov. Evers’ education budget to essentially freeze local district spending by not adjusting revenue limits,” a press release from Evers’ office states.
The new plan offered by Evers and Underly calls for raising those revenue limits, authorizing local school districts to spend an additional $350 per pupil in 2022-23 and an additional $650 per pupil in 2023-24, and provides $800 million in state funds so there is no need to raise property taxes.
The result is a budget that “smooth[es] the fiscal cliff created by the Legislature by using one-time federal dollars for operating costs,” Evers’ office states.
Other components of the plan include investing more than $240 million in a permanent Get Kids Ahead student mental health program accessible to every school and $10 million each year of the budget to fund literacy-related programming.
The plan also focuses on special education — a federally mandated program that has received diminished state funding, leaving districts to scramble to find other programs they can cut to fund special ed.
The Evers administration is proposing spending $750 million over the biennium on state aid for special education, increasing the state’s reimbursement to districts for special education from roughly 30% of costs to 45% in the first year of the next budget and to 60% in the second year, with a goal of achieving a 90% reimbursement by the 2026-27 school year.
Jeffrey Eide, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, called the budget proposal “a huge step forward in supporting our students, staff and communities.”
Nearly 70% of school districts in Wisconsin are considered rural.
With costs going up for fuel, insurance and electricity, districts have been “trying to make ends meet with the same money as the last two years,” Eide says. Staffing is becoming a particular struggle for many districts, with a recent survey showing a particular staff drain among rural schools.
Lance Bagstad, the superintendent of the rural Arcadia school district in Western Wisconsin, told Frederica Freyberg of Wisconsin Public Television’s Here and Now “I’ve never seen shortages like this.” Arcadia and surrounding districts have been relying on substitute teachers to fill open positions at the elementary, middle school and high school levels. And there are far fewer applicants for open jobs than there were in the past, Bagstad says. Rural districts are working on arrangements for sharing staff and trying to come up with money to increase pay and provide incentives, Bagstad said.
Evers recently allocated $75 million in federal pandemic relief funds specifically to help school districts address staffing shortages. One of the proposals released Tuesday by Evers and Underly would also loosen restrictions on hiring back retired teachers and staff to help cover open positions.
An overall boost in school funding will also help, says Eide. “If you’re in a district that’s losing staff because they can earn more money in another district — it causes a lot of stress,” he says.
“Any time we could have revenue limits increase to support student learning and we are not putting an extra burden on taxpayers, that’s a win/win,” he adds.
Chris Thiel, legislative analyst for the Milwaukee Public School District, agrees. Because Wisconsin’s large budget surplus allows for a dramatic increase in spending without an increase in taxes, “this is just a very reasonable proposal that will obviously help kids,” Thiel says. “There’s not much to argue with.”
The idea of a 60% reimbursement for special education, to take the burden off districts that have been spending a larger and larger share of their budgets on special ed, has been endorsed by the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, Thiel points out.
Evers’ proposed per-pupil adjustments, which would add up to a total increase of $1,000 per student by the end of two years, would reverse a nearly two-decade long trend during which per-pupil spending has not kept pace with inflation.
“This proposal gets us back on track. But it’s a response to those years of disinvestment,” says Thiel.
Underly will submit her full 2023-25 agency budget request later this month. Evers will then wrap it into his executive budget, to be released in February.
In January, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau will report revised revenue projections. An Aug. 24 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau increased the estimate of Wisconsin’s budget surplus. Revenue from tax collections was $1.62 billion more than the bureau’s January estimate — which already projected a $3.81 billion budget surplus.The additional $1.62 billion and the $1.73 billion already sitting in the state’s “rainy day” fund bring the current total of Wisconsin’s unexpected surplus funds to more than $7 billion.
At a cost of $2 billion, Evers’ proposed increase in school funding could be achieved without raising taxes and still leave $5 billion in surplus money untouched.
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