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

Evers wants a $2.6 billion school funding increase. Here are some highlights from the plan

Gov. Evers at an MPS back-to-school event in 2022.
Emily Files
Gov. Evers at an MPS back-to-school event in 2022.

Gov. Tony Evers has released his first state budget proposal since he was reelected last November. One of the biggest-ticket items is education.

The governor wants the state to use some of its $7 billion surplus to increase school funding by a record $2.6 billion over the next two fiscal years.

Evers is Wisconsin’s former state superintendent. He has proposed major education spending in past budgets, but most of it has been dead on arrival with Republicans who control the Legislature.

Here are some highlights from Evers' latest K-12 spending plan.

Emphasis on mental health

When Evers unveiled his budget proposal, he focused on student mental health. He pointed to new data from the CDC, which shows the highest rate of depression ever seen among Wisconsin high schoolers, especially among girls and lesbian, gay and bisexual students. Anxiety and suicidal thoughts have also increased among teens.

"No one who has the privilege of working in [the state Capitol building] can read these statistics and say with a straight face that we’re already doing enough," Evers said. "Folks, ‘enough’ will be enough when these are not the statistics we’re reading about our kids in the news. It’s time to get serious."

Evers wants to spend $118 million to reimburse schools for mental health services and about $40 million for mental health professionals like social workers and psychologists in schools.

Biggest line items for special education and general expenses

Most of the $2.6 billion would go toward freeing up money for schools to spend on general expenses. Evers wants to increase general aid by $1 billion, giving schools an extra $1,000 per student to spend over the two years.

Another $1 billion would go to special education. The underfunding of special education is an ongoing issue in Wisconsin. Schools are federally mandated to provide services for kids with disabilities, but as those costs have ballooned, state funding has not.

Currently, the state only covers about 30% of special ed costs. That forces schools to pull funding from their general education costs to make up the difference.

Evers wants to double the state’s special education reimbursement rate to 60%, which would free up a lot of money for schools.

Revenue limit increase

When the state increases general aid for schools, it doesn’t automatically give them more money to spend. School spending is restricted by revenue limits, which are meant to keep property taxes in check.

In each budget, the governor and Legislature can decide to raise the revenue limit by a certain amount, or keep it flat. In the last budget, Republicans increased general aid, but kept the revenue limit flat, which resulted in property tax relief rather than giving schools more money to spend.

In explaining why they didn't increase the revenue limit, Republicans pointed to billions of dollars in federal funding coming to schools for pandemic-related costs. But that money is unevenly distributed and temporary, so some schools have been forced to either use the one-time money to pay for ongoing costs or to make cuts.

Evers wants to raise the revenue limit over the next two years by $1,000 per student.

Federal funding runs out next year

The federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding for schools expires in September 2024.

School districts are rushing to complete construction projects, buy textbooks and professional development for staff, and hire temporary staff. School leaders say if the state doesn’t increase its support, they’re facing a painful fiscal cliff.

Some other noteworthy pieces of Evers' proposal include: $120 million to make school meals free for all students, $75 million for English learner students, and about $15 million aimed at strengthening the teacher workforce.

Republican response

In a press conference responding to Evers’ budget address, Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) called out a proposal Evers included that would freeze enrollment in school choice programs.

"Governor Evers' plan freezes enrollment in school choice, which is a critical part of our state's education system that ensures families have the educational options that fit their children's needs," Rodriguez said. "Instead, our budget will prioritize parental involvement, providing educational options and improving student achievement."

The school choice programs use taxpayer money as private school tuition. Evers has tried in past budgets to freeze enrollment in the programs, but it’s a nonstarter with Republicans.

Republicans note that they’ve made investments in mental health, literacy and special education in past budgets. Those may be areas of compromise with Evers. But they are not likely to spend as much as the governor wants.

The Republicans who lead the budget-writing committee have thrown out the vast majority of Evers' education budget proposals in the past.

In 2019, Evers wanted a $1.4 billion increase. Republicans went with a $500 million increase.

In 2021, Evers proposed $1.6 billion for K-12 schools. Republicans increased new, spendable money to schools by about $128 million. Again, Republicans argued that because of the one-time federal money, schools didn’t need as much state funding.

Evers could refuse to sign a Republican budget if he thinks it doesn’t do enough for students. That kind of standoff between Evers and lawmakers hasn’t happened with the past two budgets.

A Marquette poll from last October shows an even divide over whether to reduce property taxes or increase spending on public schools. But with a $7 billion surplus, lawmakers might feel like they can do both.

The Marquette poll also asked voters about private vs. public school support – and about 60% of Wisconsinites would rather increase public school funding than private school funding.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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