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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Legislature Sends Budget With Minimal School Funding Increase To Evers

MPS' Clemens Elementary
Emily Files
Students arrive at Milwaukee Public Schools' Clemens Elementary on the district's first day back to in-person school during the 20-21 school year.

Wisconsin’s Republican-majority Legislature passed a biennial state budget this week with more than $3 billion in tax cuts. The spending plan included minimal new funding for K-12 schools, which was a major topic of debate among lawmakers.

There were two stories about the education budget on the floor of the Assembly and Senate. Republicans framed it as a historic investment.

"We have great public schools. This budget continues saying that," said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. "I understand that some of you think the first draw on every single dollar should go to public schools. But this budget more than any I have seen in my lifetimes gives huge increases to public schools. Huge. More than they will probably be able to effectively spend."

That huge amount Vos is referring to is the $2.6 billion in federal COVID relief coming to schools to spend over the next three years.

READ: Federal COVID Relief Backfires On Wisconsin Schools In State Budget Proposal

"We would be negligent as legislators if we ignored the federal money," said River Falls Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, a Republican. "Because that is on the credit card of your children and grandchildren. Somebody’s going to pay for that."

Democrats argued the federal money is for one-time expenses to address the impacts of the pandemic, and schools have operational costs that they need state funding to cover. The state budget increases spendable money for schools by $128 million — a less than 2% increase.

"You’re treating federal dollars as primary source of education funding when it should not be seen that way," said Milwaukee Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat. "It should be seen as extra."

Democrats in both chambers tried to amend the budget to include more education funding. Among other priorities, they wanted to raise the special education reimbursement rate from the Republican proposal of 30% to Gov. Evers’ proposal of 50%. Right now, school districts have to draw from their general funds to pay for much of their special education costs.

The Republican majority voted down the amendments.

Democratic Rep. Robyn Vining of Wauwatosa said the budget sets districts up for another challenging year.

"It concerns me to look into the faces of my children, other people’s children, teachers, administrators, parents, when they express they have just endured this past monster of a year … and then finally came out on the other side, and the Republican-led Legislature has abandoned our public schools," Vining said.

But in the final votes on the state budget, a handful of Senate and Assembly Democrats joined Republicans in voting for it, including Rep. Steve Doyle of Onalaska.

"Some of my colleagues fear that this is a harmful budget," Doyle said. "I’m not sure that I think it’s harmful. I just don’t think it’s helpful."

Doyle said he was confident that Democratic Gov. Evers would use his line-item veto pen to improve the budget.

Evers could use line-item vetoes, as he did two years ago. He could also veto the entire budget. But the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has warned that if Wisconsin’s governor and Legislature don’t come to an agreement on a state budget, schools would be at risk of losing their more than $2 billion in federal COVID aid.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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