A desperate, last-minute push for school funding

June 28, 2023 5:00 am
Rally to increase funding for school in the state budget at the Capitol | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Students, parents, teachers and advocates joined a rally to increase funding for schools in the Wisconsin state budget at the Capitol on Tuesday, June 27 | Wisconsin Examiner photo

As smoke from Canadian forest fires enveloped downtown Madison in a thick haze Tuesday, prompting health officials to warn people to stay indoors, about 100 public education advocates gathered in the State Capitol rotunda to sound the alarm about another crisis — the abandonment of Wisconsin’s public schools.

Students, teachers and public school advocates said they felt betrayed by Gov. Tony Evers, the former state superintendent of public instruction who has repeatedly promised to “always do what’s best for kids.”

The compromise Evers reached with Republican legislative leaders, before the Joint Finance Committee even had a chance to take up the state’s education budget, “sells our kids short,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

“We were always told we couldn’t fund our public schools because we couldn’t afford it,” DuBois Bourenane said. “Well, now we know that’s a lie.”

The record-breaking $7 billion state budget surplus could easily cover the cost of restoring Wisconsin public school funding, which hasn’t kept pace with inflation for the last 14 years. Instead, under the terms of the deal Evers reached with Republican leaders, public schools face another two years of austerity, while private schools in the voucher and charter programs get more direct aid from the state than most public schools are even allowed to spend

Gov. Tony Evers announces $90 million in new federal funds for schools at Leopold Elementary in Madison on Aug. 30 2022 | Wisconsin Examiner photo
Gov. Tony Evers announces $90 million in new federal funds for schools at Leopold Elementary in Madison on Aug. 30 2022 | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Gone are the priorities laid out in Evers’ original budget proposal, including a 60% state reimbursement to districts for the cost of special education — a mandatory expense that is devouring school districts’ general funds — reduced to a 33.3% state reimbursement that isn’t even a “sum certain” or guaranteed payment in the current budget deal. Evers’ $1,510 per pupil increase in spendable funds for all students has been reduced to $325 per pupil. More than $340 million to continue Child Care Counts, a pandemic-era child care stabilization fund that supports providers and keeps costs down for parents was cut. Evers’ proposed $500 million for mental health is down to $30 million under the terms of the agreement between Evers and state legislators.

Clapping for crumbs

“Call their bluff!” DuBois Bourenane exclaimed when asked what Evers should do about Republicans’ reluctance to put more money into public schools. “They literally got everything they asked for and more in this budget. You think they’re going to let it go down the toilet?” The Wisconsin Public Education Network is pushing for amendments to the budget to significantly boost funding for schools, and wants Evers to do the same. If that fails, they’d back him if he vetoes the whole thing. DuBois Bourenane doesn’t think Republican legislators, who put forward a zero-increase budget for schools last time, would push their local school districts off a cliff, with no federal pandemic relief funds to break their fall.

At a certain point you can’t just quietly clap for crumbs. If that point isn’t when your state has never been in a rosier fiscal position, I don’t know when it is

– Heather DuBois Bourenane, Wisconsin Public Education Network

Plus, she added, “the governor literally just got reelected on this issue!”

Most of all, DuBois Bourenane is frustrated by the pointlessness of austerity budgeting given the state’s historic surplus.

Heather DuBois Bourenane, Wisconsin Public Education Network | Photo by Joe Brusky
Heather DuBois Bourenane, Wisconsin Public Education Network | Photo by Joe Brusky

“At a certain point you can’t just quietly clap for crumbs,” she said. “If that point isn’t when your state has never been in a rosier fiscal position, I don’t know when it is.” 

It’s not necessity driving the cuts. It’s a matter of priorities. Republicans are exuberant, for example, about forcing Evers to swallow a record-breaking diversion of public funds to private schools. Taxpayers will shell out about $2,000 more per student for K-8 private school choice students by the end of the budget cycle and more than $3,500 more per private high school students — bringing private high schools’ tuition subsidy to $12,765 per student per year (more than Wisconsin’s average per-pupil spending on public school kids of $12,740 according to the 2020 Census). Keep in mind that a large majority of families in Wisconsin’s private school choice program have never put their kids in public school. 

Evers has downplayed the significance of those tuition subsidy hikes when he signed them but, coupled with the long-scheduled disappearance of all enrollment and tuition caps on the school choice program in two years, they dramatically accelerate the redirection of money from public to private schools. 

Meanwhile, the $325 per pupil increase some (but not all) public schools are getting doesn’t come close to keeping pace with inflation. Forget the hype about a “historic investment” in schools. “A budget that doesn’t keep pace with inflation is not a ‘historic investment,’” said DuBois Bourenane. “It’s a cut.”

That feeling is shared by people all over Wisconsin who made restoring funding for schools the No. 1 priority at recent budget hearings throughout the state.

“We’re talking about a spinal transplant,” Madison teacher Bert Zipperer said as rallygoers discussed what to do about the negotiations between Republicans and Evers. “We need a donor.” 

‘I am a person’

Martha Siravo of Madtown Mommas speaks about special education funding | Wisconsin Examiner photo

The legislature’s proposed bump in special education funding, which has been frozen for a decade, amounts to a 1.8% increase in the state’s share of special ed costs. That still leaves Wisconsin among the worst states in the nation when it comes to funding for disabled kids.

Madison public school student Zavier Hauser, who graduated in 2023, spoke from his wheelchair through an assistive speech device about what those numbers mean for him.

“I am a person with hopes and dreams, despite what people may think when they look at me,” Hauser said, explaining that he was crushed to have to spend his senior year of high school studying at home. “Not enough money for public schools means there’s not enough staff to meet my needs,” said Hauser, who has cerebral palsy..

Some people might think he should just go to a private school, Hauser said, but, he explained, schools in the choice program can discharge special ed students who are expensive to educate and, unlike public schools, they are under no legal obligation to meet their needs.

Closing schools, cutting staff

Beloit schools superintendent Dr. Willie E. Garrison II told rallygoers his district won’t even receive the $325 per pupil increase in the proposed budget, because of a state law that forbids districts with failed school funding referenda from accessing per-pupil increases for three years.

Beloit has closed two schools, cut 55 full-time staff positions and reduced benefits. According to the district’s finance director, Beloit will miss out on $4 million annually since it can’t access the per pupil increase. On top of that, the Beloit district’s share of expenses for private school choice students is going up by $2.5 million.

“We are asking that amendments be brought to the floor,” Garrison said, picking up on the theme of the rally: It’s not too late to fix this budget. 

“Please don’t hold back districts that desperately need support,” he added.

Beloit is not alone in facing austerity. In Green Bay, a task force has recommended shutting down 11 schools the district can no longer afford to run. “That’s a huge step for our district to take,” said school board president Laura McCoy. But board members are hiring a consultant to study how to fairly implement the recommendation. They know they have to do something. Special education eats up about $33 million each year out of the district’s $300 million general operating budget. The Legislature’s proposed special ed increase, worth about $1 million to Green Bay, “won’t come close to matching the need,” McCoy said. Rising expenses for private school vouchers are another drain on the district’s budget. Yet the parochial schools and independent charters that are funded by a growing share of local property taxes don’t have the same accountability as public schools and don’t answer to an elected school board, McCoy pointed out.

“We appreciate the increase in revenue limits” in the budget, McCoy said, “but they are far below the inflationary increases we need.”

In Milwaukee, another district with depleted funds and high needs, the state mandate that police officers come back into schools that don’t want them imposes an additional, burdensome cost on the district.

Small, rural districts in distress

And it’s not just big, urban districts that are feeling pinched. In a letter to his state legislators, Bruce Quinton, the superintendent of schools in rural Pepin, Wisconsin, estimated that his district will end up in the red by more than $300,000 under the current budget plan.

The proposed $325 per pupil increase “reflects a 2.1% increase per pupil over the two year budget for Pepin,” Quinton wrote. “That in itself is nowhere near the rate of inflation which has run 4.7% a year ago and the CPI is at around 8% for this coming year.”

On top of that, legislators promised they would “backfill” for the last budget, which gave schools $0 per pupil, Quinton pointed out. Instead, over the course of two budget cycles the Legislature is now delivering a 1.1% increase per pupil for Pepin.

“If these numbers are correct and the budget that was proposed last week stays as is, Pepin Area Schools will be forced to go to referendum this fall to fulfill the promised backfill from the fiscal cliff set up in the last state budget,” Quinton wrote, before concluding, “Thank you for listening.”

‘It’s not too late’

It wasn’t clear how closely legislators were listening Tuesday in the Capitol as the Wisconsin Public Education Network unveiled state budget report cards with grades of “F” in every category. “It’s not too late to fix this budget and improve these grades!” the group proclaimed.

Public school advocates scattered to legislative offices to urge amendments on the floor this week, including reallocating funds from the Republicans’ massive tax breaks for top earners to schools, restoring the $340 million cut from Child Care Counts, accepting the federal Medicaid expansion, worth $3.8 billion to Wisconsin, and reallocating $590 million in Wisconsin’s school levy tax credit to fund special ed. 

All of this could be accomplished without eating up Wisconsin’s entire budget surplus. Politics, not economics, are the problem. 

“Sometimes it feels like the decisions are very punitive — toward teachers in particular,” said McCoy. “We have such amazing staff here in Green Bay who care about our kids,” she added. 

When she first ran for school board six years ago, she never thought supporting the public schools would be so politically fraught.

“I just didn’t expect to spend so much time begging politicians to care about public education,” she said. “I just assumed all elected officials would want to support public education.” 


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Ruth Conniff
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 the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She 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 lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.