Wisconsin's first state budget under former education chief, now-Gov. Tony Evers provides a $570 million increase for K-12 schools. Republican lawmakers crafted the spending plan, which resulted in a smaller boost than Evers proposed.
Whether public school advocates see that as a success or failure depends on who you ask.
“It all depends on what your starting point is and what your expectations are,” said Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. “Obviously, if you wanted to see the governor’s proposal, that didn’t happen. If you wanted to see schools have a solid foundation, then I think the budget kind of meets your expectations.”
Evers wanted to put an additional $1.4 billion into schools. The budget boosts funding by less than half that amount. When he signed the budget on July 3, Evers expressed some disappointment.
“Unfortunately, the budget I’m signing here today is, in many ways, insufficient,” he said.
But, the Democrat took credit for pushing Republicans toward his priorities. And he lauded the investments it makes in special education, mental health support, and general aid.
Rossmiller, with the school boards association, says state support of schools has lagged inflation since the great recession and Act 10. He says this budget helps move schools back to pre-Act 10 levels.
“The last two years [under Gov. Scott Walker’s last budget] and these two years, to be maybe not just meeting inflation but also getting a little bit above inflation is viewed as recovering some of the ground we lost,” Rossmiller said. “And putting schools on a more stable footing.”
But other public-school advocates don’t view the state budget as favorably.
“The budget did not meet the needs of our kids,” said Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Larry Miller.
The funding increase will help MPS reinstate an employee salary schedule this year. But Miller says overall, it’s status quo.
“For us it means that class sizes will continue to be larger than they should,” Miller said. “It means our students won’t get the music, arts, phys-ed, librarians, mental health support, 21st century facilities they deserve.”
Republicans removed several of Evers’ proposals that would have benefitted MPS, like money for English language learners and support targeted to urban districts.
GOP lawmakers also slashed a cornerstone of Evers’ proposal: special education aid. Over the past decade, state reimbursement of schools’ rising special ed costs has been flat. Evers wanted to more than double the reimbursement rate from 25-60%. Republicans agreed to an increase, but it’s much smaller – 30%, which kicks in next fiscal year.
Miller says that means MPS will continue to divert millions of dollars from its general fund to pay for special education.
“It’s an unfunded mandate,” Miller said. “And that money comes from our general operations funds, which hurts special ed students from getting music, art, small class sizes. And it hurts the whole system from getting those things.”
Miller says MPS may try to circumvent state funding constraints by going to voter referendum next year. Balancing school district budgets via referendum has become a common tool in Wisconsin.