Tony Evers’ background is in education, including serving as the top education official in Wisconsin. Now that he is governor, Evers is proposing a raft of school funding changes. He delivered his first budget address on Feb. 28.
The governor’s budget also addresses an obstacle many Wisconsin school districts struggle with: revenue limits. The limits cap how much a district can spend per student, essentially restricting local school boards’ ability to raise property taxes.
Many districts turn to voter referendums to get around revenue limits. In fact, 2018 was a record year for school referendums.
Evers didn’t mention revenue limits in his budget address, but he did emphasize the issue in January, when he spoke to a conference of school leaders from around the state.
“The state has not lived up to its obligation to kids, leaving the referenda as the only opportunity you have to increase revenues and making sure you’re meeting the needs of all the kids,” Evers said in January. “I will be your partner in the governor’s office and these days of undervaluing our children are over.”
Evers wants to make revenue caps more predictable by tying them to inflation. He also wants to increase the limits for the lowest-spending school districts.
And if districts do decide to go to voter referendum, Evers wants to remove restrictions that limit the number of times they can do so.
The governor’s budget also gives special attention to early childhood education and English language learners. His budget highlights that right now, the state only reimburses 8 percent of schools’ bilingual education costs. The governor wants to lift that reimbursement to 30 percent.
Chris Thiel is legislative policy director for Milwaukee Public Schools, a district where one out of every 10 students is an English language learner.
“I think it’s crucially important,” Thiel says. “Not only for Milwaukee Public Schools, but for districts across the state.”
As for early childhood education, Evers’ budget would fully fund 4-year-old kindergarten. He proposes $5 million to expand early childhood programs in the state’s biggest school districts, including Milwaukee.
There are other Milwaukee-specific provisions, including funds to enhance math and reading instruction and help more low-income parents access quality childcare.
Evers’ spending agenda is just the beginning of the budget crafting process. Republican lawmakers are wary of how much Evers’ plan would increase taxes and are expected to reject many of his proposals.
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