Blue Ribbon Commission Supports Slew Of School Funding Changes

Dec 20, 2018

There could be major funding changes on the way for Wisconsin public schools. A lawmaker-led committee on education spending met for the final time Wednesday. It put forward a list of recommendations for legislative action.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding traveled around Wisconsin in 2018. It took testimony from administrators, teachers, parents and students. The consensus: an overhaul of Wisconsin’s education funding system is overdue.

“We just can’t go on our way merrily whistling past the graveyard saying these problems don’t exist,” Republican Senator Luther Olsen said. Olsen is co-chair of the commission. “They do exist, and school districts need help with all of these situations.”

State-imposed property tax caps called revenue limits are a major strain on school districts. The caps are not uniform across the state, meaning some districts have more spending power than others. And they don’t keep pace with rising costs. In fact, the Legislature has kept the limits flat in recent years.  

Commission co-chair Joel Kitchens, a GOP state representative, said that should change.

“I think it would make it much more certain if we put it in statute that [revenue limits] go up by inflation every year,” Kitchens said. “I think that’s one thing we heard across the state that districts really, really want certainty, they want to know where they’re going to be in a few years. So I think this would be a step in that direction.”

The group agreed on a recommendation to tie revenue limit increases to inflation.

The commission also recognized the need for more special education funding. Right now state aid only covers about 25 percent of districts’ special education costs.

The panel didn’t agree on a specific budget increase. It put forward multiple options that would raise special education funding, but to different degrees. The most generous proposal would increase reimbursement to 60 percent. The most conservative would boost it to 30 percent.

Dan Rossmiller with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards advocated for an increase on the larger side. He emphasized that school districts have dealt with flat special education funding for a decade.   

“I agree that any increase is better than where we’re at right now,” Rossmiller said. “But I would hope that we would be a little bit bold.”

Among many other topics, the panel discussed using weighted funding to help schools serve their most disadvantaged children. That would mean more per-pupil money for poor students and English language learners.  

This commission’s actions were a good sign for public school advocates. The Wisconsin Public Education Network posted a statement on Facebook saying the meeting exceeded its expectations.

The next step is legislation. Lawmakers on the committee promised to put forward bills addressing the education funding proposals. 

“I would love to have bipartisan support on all of them, Democrats and Republicans on board,” said Rep. Kitchens. “I mean, we’re going to have a split government, so nothing happens if we don’t have both on board.”

The government will be split between the Republican-led legislature and new Democratic governor Tony Evers, who takes office Jan. 7.

As head of the Department of Public Instruction, Evers recommended many proposals to better fund education. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s final meeting indicates that at least some Republican lawmakers have similar goals.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau will put together a summary of the recommendations. You can see the bureau’s menu of funding options for the commission here.

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