Gov. Tony Evers signs the 2021-23 biennial budget at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, after making 50 partial vetoes (screenshot | Gov. Evers Facebook video)
Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to use part of the record-breaking $7 billion state budget surplus to restore funding for Wisconsin public schools should not be a partisan issue.
For all the Republican hand-wringing about Evers throwing money around, his education budget proposal really just gets Wisconsin’s public schools close to the level of funding they received under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
After more than a decade of disinvestment, Evers wants to direct $2.6 billion to stabilize schools’ finances. The first $1 billion will go to cover 60% of school districts’ costs for special education, instead of the current 30%. He is also proposing lifting revenue caps to allow local districts to increase per pupil spending by $1,000. His budget would reverse 14 years of decline kicked off when the Legislature eliminated the requirement that per pupil funding keep pace with inflation back in 2009.
Wisconsin has cut $3.9 billion from schools since 2012, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project. In that context, Evers’ proposal doesn’t seem so extravagant.
Nor is it a “liberal wish list.” The 60% reimbursement for special ed comes directly off the list of recommendations made by the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, created by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in 2017 and chaired by two Republican legislators. The commission also recommended lifting revenue caps to increase per pupil spending, as Evers proposes, as well as restoring the state’s commitment to fund two-thirds of the costs of public schools — as it did from 1996-2003 when Thompson was governor.
Evers proposes to make good on that commitment once again. Public school advocates are thrilled by his education budget proposal.
Chris Thiel, legislative analyst for the Milwaukee Public School District, praises what he calls “strong leadership from the governor, especially in the area of supporting students with disabilities.”
“It is wonderful to see the governor put his funding priorities where the priority need is for our students,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Restoring the reimbursement to 60% goes a long way in closing the state’s $1 billion annual special education funding gap and will be a transformational adjustment for every public school in the state”
Democrats on the Legislature’s education committee also praised the plan, including his commitment to offer free breakfast and lunch to all kids and investments in English language learners and comprehensive literacy training.
Republican legislative leaders sound more skeptical. “Boy, he sure is trying to spend a lot of money,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu commented. Vos added, “All of Gov. Evers’ ideas will probably be tossed aside, like we always do, and we’ll start over.” At the end of last year, Vos told the Wisconsin State Journal that the Legislature would consider increasing funding for public schools if it’s tied to an expansion of private school vouchers.
Instead, in his budget proposal, Evers freezes voucher enrollment.
That prompted an outcry from the rightwing Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which sent out a press release about Evers’ proposed freeze, accusing him of “defying common sense and education freedom.”
“While it’s not surprising, it is certainly disappointing to hear Governor Evers’ plan to freeze private school choice enrollment,” WILL research director Will Flanders, said in the statement. “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ model does not meet the educational needs of every student, and school choice clearly offers important options for Wisconsin families and better academic results.”
In fact, Wisconsin school choice programs have not delivered consistently better academic results. In Milwaukee, home of the first school voucher experiment in the nation, after three decades, academic results are no better than the local public schools. Some private schools that take public funds have impressive academic records. Others have closed their doors suddenly, leaving kids in an uncertain situation. What is certain is that Wisconsin’s ever-expanding school choice program is a budget buster. By simultaneously starving public schools and siphoning money into a parallel system of taxpayer-funded private schools the Legislature has created a looming disaster. As former education committee chair Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) put it in an exit interview upon his retirement, “the math doesn’t work.” “No one has tried to explain how we’re going to fund parallel school programs” — referring to the ballooning school choice subsidies for private school tuition plus the existing public school system.
The expansion of the school choice program, baked into legislation authored by school choice lobbyists and Republicans and signed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, is a ticking time bomb. Enrollment caps have increased every year, and are slated to come off altogether in 2026. Evers is merely declaring a temporary pause on this accelerating drain on public school funding.
As Thiel points out, Wisconsinites don’t see support for public schools as a partisan political issue.
“Across the state, there’s a really strong understanding of the position school districts have been put in over the last several years,” he says. “There’s a strong desire to take politics out of it, because this is too important to not get right.”
As for Republican efforts to tie any increase in the K-12 education budget to a big voucher expansion, “I don’t think posing public school funding as a bargaining chip ever made sense to anybody,” Thiel says. “There shouldn’t be strings attached to doing the right thing.”
And restoring stability and strength to Wisconsin’s public school system is definitely the right thing to do.
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