© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Here's what's at stake for Wisconsin K-12 schools in the gubernatorial election

Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a first-day-of-school event for Milwaukee Public Schools.
Emily Files
Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a first-day-of-school event for Milwaukee Public Schools.

Public schools are a top concern for Wisconsin voters, according to the Marquette University Law School Poll.

Wisconsin students fell behind academically during the pandemic and school districts are now struggling with mostly flat state funding and rising costs — driving many to seek taxpayer referendums.

How these issues are addressed at the state level may come down to who is elected governor.

School funding

Last December, Gov. Evers stood at a podium in Milwaukee’s North Division High School. The former state superintendent and public school teacher was announcing grants of about $130 per student in federal funding for public schools.

"Just as I said when I signed it, the last budget wasn’t good enough for our kids," Evers said. "Especially in light of the ongoing pandemic and the supports that we know our kids need now more than ever. Republicans could and should have done more."

It’s an example of how Evers has worked to get around the Republican-controlled Legislature, which gutted his two education budget proposals as governor. In the most recent state budget, Republicans approved less than a tenth of the education funding Evers wanted. Evers has repeatedly used federal pandemic aid to help schools fill budget holes.

"While these funds won’t make our schools whole on their own, it’ll go a long way towards helping ensure our kids get the services and resources they need to rebound and recover," Evers said at that December press conference.

Evers is trying again to increase school funding by more than $2 billion in the next biennium. He wants to increase revenue limits, special education funding, and mental health support, among other priorities. More funding, Evers says, is what schools need to catch students up academically.

With a gerrymandered Legislature, Evers is likely to face resistance again if he’s reelected.

As for Republican challenger Tim Michels, it’s unclear how much he would increase public school funding.

"We’re going to spend as much money as any governor ever has on education, but we’re going to spend it wisely. Right now, that’s not happening," Michels said during a gubernatorial debate.

Michels' campaign did not respond to a request for details on this and other education proposals of his.

Heather DuBois Bourenane with the Wisconsin Public Education Network says Evers has played another important role when it comes to education: vetoing Republican bills.

"Even though most of Gov. Evers proposals have not gone through, he has been able to stop many of those bad ideas from becoming law, and that is something that matters very, very much to every single kid in the state," DuBois Bourenane said.

School choice

One of the bills Evers vetoed would have lifted income limits on school choice programs. Those programs allow low-income families to use taxpayer funding for private, mostly religious schools. Michels wants to create "universal school choice," though he hasn't provided the specific details of that plan.

Jim Bender, a school choice lobbyist, says the pandemic increased parent demand for options outside of traditional public schools.

"The movement to get to universal school choice is very simple – you’re going to give all taxpayers the ability to direct funds to the education choice that’s going to work best for their family," said Jim Bender. "It’s not any more complicated than that."

The Department of Public Instruction estimated it would cost taxpayers more than $500 million if income limits were lifted on school choice programs. That estimate is based on every private school student who doesn't currently have a voucher getting one.

But Bender says, the private-pay students in private schools wouldn't automatically receive vouchers, because schools might not be able to afford to open up more voucher seats. The voucher amount is about $8,400 for a grade 1-8 student and $9,045 for a high school student.

"The single high school that operated on the voucher, meaning they operated the entire high school specifically on a neighborhood that could only afford the voucher, that's HOPE Christian High School, had to close this last year," Bender said. "They had to close simply because on $9,000 a kid, unless you're doing significant fundraising, they couldn't operate."

Bender said the state would need to increase the voucher payment in order to open up more seats in private schools. Even then, some schools with higher tuition costs might choose not to accept vouchers.

In the latest Marquette poll, just 29% of Wisconsin voters wanted increased state support for private schools, compared to 63% in favor of more public school funding.

Evers is opposed to directing more public funding to private schools. He previously proposed limits on the programs — but that proposal died in the state Legislature.

Milwaukee Public Schools

Milwaukee Public Schools has been under fire from Republicans after it spent almost the entire 2020-21 school year remote and continues to produce academic results well below the state average. MPS serves a high concentration of students living in poverty.

A bill from Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) that would break Milwaukee into four to eight smaller districts passed the Legislature last session, but was vetoed by Gov. Evers.

Michels has called MPS "broken" and said he would be open to dividing it into smaller districts.

"We're going to bring all the people together, from the mayor, the county executive, the heads of MPS...We're going to say, how do we make this better?" Michels said at a Rotary Club of Milwaukee appearance. "If they say, just give us more money and it'll get better, I'm going to say that's not going to happen — something needs to significantly get better. If we have to break up MPS and start from scratch, we’ll do that."

MPS high school student Shafarrah Ray is worried about that idea.

"Have you even tried to go to an MPS school? Have you even tried to help the issues that are going on in MPS?" Ray asked.

Ray went to Milwaukee Spanish Immersion for elementary school, which is on the opposite side of the city from where she grew up. She's worried if MPS were split into smaller districts, it would limit opportunities for students like her.

"I feel like it kind of takes away a lot of the parents' voice and a lot of their choice, because it's like, you only have the option to communicate with the schools around you," Ray said. "And what if you live in a bad neighborhood and you don't want your child to go to that school?"

Which education options to support will be up to Wisconsin's next governor. The election is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.


Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
Related Content