Bailey LeRoy and her mother, Tara LeRoy, participated in a march on the Capitol in 2019 to publicize the funding needs of the state's schools. Bailey was a fifth grader at Palmyra-Eagle Elementary, which was closed by the district in 2020 because of lack of funds. (Photo courtesy of Tara LeRoy.)
It’s an understatement to say that public school advocates are not happy with the state budget Gov. Tony Evers signed.
“We’re not here to cheer for crumbs,” Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, declared at the group’s annual Summer Summit last week. “This budget did not deliver and will not adequately meet the needs of kids.”
It’s a “weird moment” for public school advocates, DuBois Bourenane added, noting the conspicuous absence of Evers, a longtime ally, from the annual gathering of public education organizers. Evers has signed a budget DuBois Bourenane described as “disgusting,” leaving 40% of school districts with less funding this year than they had under last year’s zero-increase budget.
School superintendents who attended the summer summit reeled off program cuts and school closings around the state as districts are forced to tighten their belts even though the state is sitting on more than $6 billion in surplus funds. Wisconsin is entering its 16th year of school funding that doesn’t keep pace with inflation. The toll is visible in districts that have had to close buildings and cancel programs.
“It’s a difficult line, I suppose, to walk,” an unsmiling State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly told me, standing in the hallway outside the auditorium at South Milwaukee High School after delivering the welcoming speech at the summit. Her theme was growth and change and how no one is perfect, drawing on a poem about caterpillars and butterflies.
“I feel like the governor is caught in a bad spot,” Underly added. Evers had to negotiate a deal with Republicans who were threatening to withhold shared revenue funds from Milwaukee, potentially plunging the state’s largest urban area into bankruptcy.
“It’s all part of politics and negotiation,” Underly said. “I do feel bad for the schools, because we got little, on top of no increase in the past.”
Although the budget deal does allow most school districts to levy an additional $325 per pupil from local property tax payers, that just “puts the burden back on the local districts to make up for that revenue rather than the state,” Underly said. And the state’s failure to meet public school demands that it cover at least 60% of the cost of special education — an expense that is devouring school district budgets, leading to program cuts in other areas — was a “missed opportunity,” Underly said, given the huge budget surplus. “I do feel strongly that our public schools lost out again.”
As for the big increase in taxpayer money going to finance private schools through the voucher expansion Evers signed as part of his deal with Republicans, “It’s hard to swallow,” Underly said, “because, really, we can’t afford two school systems.”
In just two years, all the enrollment caps will come off the school voucher program in 2026 and the problem of supporting two school systems, one public and one private, from the same limited pool of education funds, is going to get even worse.
“I think there’s going to be a reckoning,” Underly said. “I think the people in this state are going to have to do some soul-searching and really answer the question: What future do they want for public schools and kids and communities? Do they want a system that serves everybody? Or do they want to have two systems where the one that serves everybody keeps shrinking?”
That pretty much sums up not just the battle over the future of public schools in Wisconsin this year, but all of the struggles over the future of democracy in our state and around the country that suddenly seem to be coming to a head this year.
Are we going to have a society where we come together around shared values and common interests, or are we going to continue to break into increasingly isolated, hostile camps, tearing down our shared institutions, and leaving individuals and families on their own to grab what they can for themselves?
The Wisconsin Public Education Networks’ slogan, “Public Schools Unite Us” captures the more optimistic of those two roads.
“I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that slogan,” podcaster Todd Albaugh, a former Republican who spent 30 years in government and politics, said during the summit. He talked about the state champion high school baseball team in the little town of Ithaca, Wisconsin, and how everyone rallied around them. “Wisconsin public schools, they are the identity of our communities,” he said.
The Wisconsin Public Education Network has done an admirable job of reinforcing that identity, and defying the “politics of resentment” by bringing people together from urban and rural parts of the state. Together, rural and urban districts hammered out a shared set of priorities and pushed for them in the Capitol. Although they didn’t get what they wanted in the budget, they showed unity of purpose in pushing for a big raise in the state reimbursement for ballooning special education costs and a $1,510 per pupil increase to make up for 15 years of budgets that haven’t kept pace with inflation.
The vision of schools as cradles of a healthy, diverse, civic society was on display at South Milwaukee High, which hosted the summit Aug. 10, with representatives from mostly white rural districts mixing with students of color and teachers and administrators from urban, majority-minority schools.
There was a lot of talk about school funding and not so much on the hot buttons pushed by the right: “critical race theory,” gender pronouns and “parents rights.”
Politicians and school-privatization lobbyists have put a lot of money and energy into stirring up anger and distrust based on those culture war topics, in an effort to distract voters and undermine public schools. But the real aim of rightwing attacks on public schools is not just to teach conservative family values or racist rewrites of history. School privatization advocates have been working for decades to get their hands on the public funds that flow to public schools. As Rupert Murdoch put it, discussing News Corp’s foray into the business of education: “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.” In Wisconsin, that transformation is well underway.
Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of 250 Idaho business leaders who helped beat back publicly funded private school vouchers in their state, urged Wisconsin public school advocates gathered in South Milwaukee last week to keep the focus on the bigger picture.
“People don’t understand this is not a state problem,” Gramer said. “They don’t understand there’s a large group of billionaires who want to abolish public education.
“Billionaires who’ve never set foot in your state are spending billions to elect friendly legislators,” Gramer correctly pointed out. “I think people would be outraged if they know these elite billionaires are trying to undermine education in your state.”
Pro-business, anti-government players including the Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council have certainly become better known to Wisconsinites since they began working to destroy unions and defund public education in our state. But I think Gramer is right that the current culture war has created up a thick smoke screen in front of the real motives of groups that scream about “parents’ rights.”
That’s not to say people shouldn’t stand up to the current attacks on LGBTQ kids, who have been targeted recently in an unprecedented, scary way.
Melissa Tempel, better known as “the Rainbowland teacher” spoke at the public education summit about being fired from her job in Waukesha for speaking out against that school district’s ridiculous ban on the song “Rainbowland” and its ongoing pressure campaign against LGBTQ-friendly classes.
“If we want kids to do better academically, we have to make sure they feel supported and welcome in school,” Tempel said. A teacher of 23 years, she is often approached by former students who thank her for standing up for them — including kids she had no idea were gay. “And I’m so glad I was open and accepting and didn’t do or say anything to hurt that little kid,” she said at the summit.
That’s the other thing about this fight over our schools. It’s really a fight over kids. It’s sleazy and gross to see politicians and rightwing think tankers taking aim at kids. As in any nasty family breakdown, if adults don’t get their act together, the kids are the ones who are hurt.
We can do better. Voters, whether they are rural Republicans or urban Democrats, really can get together on defending a shared vision of a decent society. A cornerstone of that society is a free, high-quality public education system with beloved teachers, music programs, sports teams, and the whole sense of community that builds. Public schools do unite us. And as Evers said, before he got his arm twisted and signed the current budget, we should always do what’s best for kids.
Correction: A previous version of this column stated that in two years all income and enrollment caps come off the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. Enrollment caps will be lifted in 2026 but not income caps.
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