As 2019 comes to a close, we’re looking back at some of Wisconsin’s most important education stories of the year – many of which will continue to play out in 2020.
The year started on a high note for public school advocates, with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers taking office. Evers spent his career in education, eventually becoming Wisconsin’s superintendent of schools, and then ousting Republican incumbent Scott Walker for the governor’s seat in the November 2018 election.
“What’s best for our kids is best for our state,” Evers said in his inaugural address. “And that means we need to fully fund our public schools at every level, so that every kid in the state has access to a quality education, no matter what the zip code.”
Republicans, who control the Legislature, rejected Evers’ plan, saying it was irresponsible to taxpayers. The GOP instead presented a scaled-back education spending increase of about $500 million.
“We are making a historic investment in education,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), said at a news conference announcing the plan. "This will be the highest level of investment we have ever made in our public schools in the history of Wisconsin.”
Republicans’ budget plan passed, but with dozens of vetoes from Gov. Evers. It increased K-12 funding by about $600 million for general school costs and special education.
But the budget left Wisconsin’s restrictive funding formula in place. And many school districts are still struggling.
The most extreme example is the rural Palmyra-Eagle District in southeastern Wisconsin, which is on the verge of dissolution due to financial challenges. Students there say it’s hard to imagine what will happen when the school year ends, because Palmyra would be the first district to dissolve under current state education laws.
“What’s really hard is this would be the first school in the state to actually close,” said student Allyson Fredrick. “So we don’t really know what it’s like. We don’t have anybody to talk to, to be like, ‘hey how’d you go through this, what did you do to still succeed?’”
An independent board will determine Palmyra-Eagle’s fate in January. Its students, assets, and debt may be divided among surrounding districts, but most of those districts are resistant to the idea.
The board governing Wisconsin's largest school district underwent a major shift in 2019. Five progressive newcomers were elected in April. The new board quickly acted on changes advocated by the teachers' union, such as reinstating employee salary schedules. The salary schedules boost pay for teachers, but also for lower-wage employees.
"This is a change that we’ve been wanting and hoping for," said cafeteria worker Betty Benson, who was affected by the new salary scales. "I believe this is a fresh start, I believe (they're) picking it up a little bit."
The MPS Board is also taking the bold step of asking voters to increase property taxes to improve schools. It's the first MPS tax referendum in 26 years.
“We have to start looking and asking for a lot more,” said MPS board member Bob Peterson, "because our kids deserve that.”
The $87 million school referendum would expand and sustain educational programming. It will go to Milwaukee voters in April 2020.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin higher education, the UW System saw a major announcement. President Ray Cross is retiring after five years leading the system.
In an interview before the retirement news, Cross said he was disappointed that the state Legislature refused to meet the UW System’s funding request.
“The future of the state of Wisconsin is at stake,” Cross said, "and the long-term benefits to this state will be the result of investment in the University of Wisconsin.”
The next person to oversee the UW system will face the ongoing challenge of declining enrollment at most campuses and tight funding as a tuition freeze continues.
When Wisconsin students return to school in January, safety is likely to be a concern. In early December, there were two officer-involved shootings at Wisconsin high schools. In Waukesha, an officer shot a 17-year-old who allegedly was armed with pellet gun. In Oshkosh, a 16-year-old was shot after reportedly stabbing a school resource officer.
Various lawmakers and leaders have responded to the school violence with ideas to restrict gun access, increase mental health support or add more police officers to schools. But no action has yet been taken.
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