Wisconsin public education advocates are planning a 60-mile march to Madison this weekend to call for more state support of school districts. Organizers say Republican legislators’ plan to increase K-12 funding by about $500 million in the state biennial budget falls far short.
Instead, they support the much larger $1.4 billion spending boost proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
The idea for the march started in Milwaukee, with new school board member Megan O’Halloran. The MPS Board just passed its preliminary budget for the upcoming school year. The board was frustrated with the district's inability to afford many of the things students and staff were asking for, like full-time art and music teachers in each school.
At the final MPS budget meeting on May 30, O’Halloran criticized the Joint Finance Committee’s decision to throw out Evers’ proposed K-12 budget.
“We’re talking about how to move funds around on the plate and we’re trying to create more with just less,” O’Halloran said at the meeting. “And people in Madison seem determined to do the most to do the absolute least for our kids."
O’Halloran said she wanted to take a "pilgrimage" to the capital to call for more public school funding.
“And as soon as she said that, our phones just started ringing,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, a statewide advocacy group.
In less than a month, the organization planned a four-day, 60-mile march to lobby legislators for more funding. It will start Saturday in the Jefferson County town of Palmyra and end Tuesday at the Wisconsin State Capitol, where the Assembly is set to take up the finance committee’s biennial budget plan.
“This is like kid-friendly plus,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos at a press conference touting the finance committee’s version of the budget.
GOP Sen. Luther Olsen said even though school leaders were initially excited about Evers’ budget, “they are realistic people. After talking to them and talking about what we were looking at doing, they said this is realistic, this will help us immensely.”
Evers proposed a $1.4 billion K-12 funding increase over two years. The Republican plan provides about a third of that.
One of the major differences is special education support. Right now, the state reimburses schools for only about 25% of their costs to serve special needs students. Evers wanted to increase reimbursement to 60% by year two of the budget. The Republican plan would increase it to 30% instead, spending about $500 million less than the governor proposed.
Special education support is a major focus of the march to Madison. Organizers are using the tagline "60 miles for 60 percent."
“The governor proposed such a significant investment and it really became the cornerstone of his proposal,” said DuBois Bourenane. “And with that provision removed, we’re basically looking at a status quo budget.”
DuBois Bourenane said the march will also highlight school districts’ financial stress due to stagnant revenue limits, which restrict school property taxes. About three out of every four Wisconsin school districts have sought voter referendums to pay for basic costs.
The town where the march is starting, Palmyra, failed to pass an operating referendum in April. Without that revenue, the district is moving to dissolve, which means its students would be absorbed by surrounding districts.
The state budget must be approved by both the Assembly and Senate before it’s sent to Evers, who could change certain language or reject the entire bill.
If the spending plan isn’t finalized by the fall, it would jeopardize school districts’ ability to take advantage of an eventual funding increase.
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