Legislature signals no increase for school funding

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    As the Joint Finance Committee prepares to meet on Thursday to consider funding for Wisconsin schools, Senate President Chris Kapenga told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he doesn’t believe the Republican-controlled Legislature will increase funding for schools.

    “I think we’re good for right now,” Kapenga said in an interview. 

    Kapenga said federal COVID relief funds represent enough of an increase in school funding that the state should not put more money into schools this year. Gov. Tony Evers has proposed an additional $1 billion for schools in his budget. Evers points out that one-time emergency relief from the federal government does not represent an increase in school funding, as it is designed to address specific needs related to the pandemic.

    South Milwaukee school officials put out a statement on Wednesday expressing concern that, in a meeting with Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek), who serves on the Joint Finance Committee, they learned that the committee is planning to recommend flat school funding for the upcoming two years. 

    “This recommendation will place our public schools in great peril for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, superintendent of South Milwaukee Public School District said in a statement. “State lawmakers are indicating that the one-time federal revenue that is designed to address the COVID-19 recovery should be used instead to take the place of State and Local funding for ongoing operations,” Weiss added. He urged citizens to contact members of the Joint Finance Committee and demand that they support a $200 per pupil revenue limit increase and Evers’ proposed 50% state reimbursement for special education programming.

    Public education advocates from across the state also expressed alarm that the Legislature’s budget committee has signaled its intention to cut investments in public education while at the same time expanding public funding for private schools — even after statewide budget hearings in which community members asked for relief from a school budget crunch.

    “Education experts, advocates and educators have been calling for a budget that closes the gaps for Wisconsin kids. Lawmakers heard them loud and clear, then signalled an intention to make them wider,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane of Wisconsin Public Education Network.

    Kapenga’s comments, as well as budget papers released by the Joint Finance Committee in advance, “suggest a willingness to make worse a status quo that is already shameful,” DuBois Bourenane added. “We’re not good with that. We’re not good with being among the worst in the nation for racial disparities, funding special education and supporting English language learners. None of this is good. We must do better, now. We must pass a budget that closes these gaps.”

    School districts across Wisconsin are increasingly dipping into general funds and making program cuts in order to cover the federally mandated costs of meeting students’ special education needs. Evers had proposed committing state funds to cover 50% of the cost of special ed programs to address the budget strain on local districts. 

    “When funding inequity forces schools to strain their budget limits to support all students, we can only attest that we are doing it wrong. It’s time to get it right,” said Martha Siravo of Madtown Mommas & Disability Advocates.

    But Kapenga said that the state should find creative ways to save money on schools, including by reducing the number of school districts from more than 400 to 72 — creating one large school district in each county.

    “If we narrowed down to 72 districts in the state, think about the amount of overhead we could cut out and use, if we need it, for funding in the classroom,” Kapenga told the Journal Sentinel, “and then start getting our taxes down — because we’re still rated as a high-tax state.”

    “If Republicans are so concerned about fiscal responsibility, they should have expanded BadgerCare yesterday and accepted the extra $1.6 billion dollars from the federal government,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said in a statement responding to Kapenga’s remarks. 

    “The fact that Republicans like Chris Kapenga want to not only restrict school resources, but also erase more than 300 school districts,” Wikler added, “shows extreme ignorance to what Wisconsin families and students need at this moment.” 

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    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 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 graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.