2022 was an exhausting, exhilarating year for those of us working to support Wisconsin students and their public schools. We are so impressed by and grateful for all of the efforts we’ve seen statewide to make an impact for local kids. 2023 will provide new opportunities and new challenges as we prepare to center what Wisconsin kids need most in our spring elections and another biennial budget cycle with a legislature full of new faces and new leadership. Effective local action depends on electing public education champions at every level and developing strong relationships with decision-makers to make sure the needs of local students are clearly articulated. The massive surplus should make it easy to meet those needs, and we plan to go into this advocacy with a strong and simple demand: NO EXCUSES. Let’s use the money we have to meet the needs of our kids now, while we still have a chance to make a difference.

We invite public school champions to join us in 2023 as we unite for the budget Wisconsin kids deserve. Our Budget HQ will serve as a landing page for kid-centered state budget information, actions, and events. Get involved where you live by getting out the vote, educating your community, preparing your own budget testimony, and telling your unique story about the power of your local public schools, the needs of local kids, and the conditions we can create if we work together for those kids.

Mark your calendars today so you can get all the tools and skills you’ll need to take action this winter/spring — and build productive relationships with public school champions who share your values along the way:

We are working with our partners to develop updated messaging toolkits, “courageous conversations” exercises, and resources and materials to help you in 2023 as you do what you do best: advocate. And as we prepare for the challenges of 2023 and reflect on the past year, we know that we can make meaningful change.

In 2022, we were blown away as communities across the state delivered loud and clear pro-public messages. Our unifying slogan, PUBLIC SCHOOLS UNITE US, took hold statewide and reminded Wisconsinites why we care so much about our public schools.

Our focus on positive messages, tools and trainings to organize locally and counter disinformation resonated statewide — and our beautiful message was transformed into an even more beautiful image thanks to the artistry of graphic designer Rae Senarighi.

When the year began, we knew we faced steep challenges.

  • School boards across the state saw a rise in divisive and dangerous rhetoric as provocateurs tried to push districts away from students’ priority needs.
  • A flurry of fast-tracked bills in the capitol attacked educators’ freedom to teach, students’ freedom to learn and play, and communities’ right to public oversight of their tax dollars — dozens of these bills passed all the way through the legislature before being vetoed by Gov. Evers.
  • Students returned to school with no new spendable dollars from the state as an irresponsible $6 billion surplus sat dormant in Madison and the current biennial budget puts partisanship before public schools.
  • Unaccountable independent charters have quietly popped up in communities across the state on taxpayers’ dime.
  • Overall, distractions from meeting the substantial educational and emotional needs of students still adapting after pandemic disruptions persisted.

Still, local-level public school champions kept the focus on kids. By leaning into support networks all over the state, local teams passed 80% of school referenda — even with a near-record number on ballots in a year of skyrocketing inflation — and rallied around students and educators when they needed it most. Local teams working directly with the Network were even more successful, seeing referendum passage rates exceeding 94%.

Our Network was relentless in support of students this year. Longstanding local-level advocates persisted and new teams popped up to educate their communities about how the state is failing students and invited pro-public neighbors to get involved. Centering local students and keeping messages above the fray of partisanship, politics, and pettiness made all the difference.

  • Hundreds gathered at the 8th Annual Summer Summit in Eau Claire to gather in the spirit of our theme, PUBLIC SCHOOLS UNITE US.
  • For the fourth year, Wisconsin Public Education Network recognized a Changemaker of the Year: Jennifer Black of Tomahawk, WI was awarded for her improbable and unwavering efforts to pass a dire school referendum in small-town Wisconsin, inviting all members of the Tomahawk community to come together and learn more for the sake of their students before seeing successful passage of their spring referendum.
  • Our new tool, the Education Vote Tracker, served as a year-round, nonpartisan resource for Wisconsinites to see what education bills were moving through the capitol in Madison, how members of the pro-public and privatization lobbies registered on those bills, and how lawmakers voted on them. This quickly became one of our most-viewed webpages.
  • People came out to vote in 2022 and put kids first at the ballot box, proving again that support for our public schools is strong across all political backgrounds and in urban, suburban, and rural communities alike.

Our Team Public staff also grew this year, and we’ve been honored to present our tools and organizing philosophy — local level action, statewide impact — at the National Forum to Advance Rural Education in Green Bay, the Network for Public Education’s Action National Conference in Philadelphia, and at local- and regional-level meetings and events throughout the year. We’re thrilled to be working with our newest staff members, Tessa Maglio and Bryn Horton, who both joined us this fall and have already dramatically increased our impact, innovation, and efficiency as we aim to meet every local-level advocate’s needs in the service of Wisconsin students.

Our regional organizers shared the following 2022 reflections from their regions:

Northwest/Chris Hambuch-Boyle

The Northwest Region’s 20+ counties continue to increase their public school advocacy.  This past summer was the first time the Network Summit was held in Northwest Wisconsin.  Thank you, Eau Claire Area School District and Eau Claire community members, for being such wonderful hosts. The Northern Wisconsin trifecta of Douglas, Bayfield and Ashland counties have started to connect their own advocacy around school board champions, funding and curriculum. I am so looking forward to even more connections in 2023!

Northeast/Denise Gaumer Hutchison

Providing support to community advocacy teams and the public schools they represent has been an amazing experience this year.  The Network had the privilege of supporting dozens of local-level committees and following the passage of many school referenda.  These teams worked hard and have been able to shine in their local communities. This is the Network in action: supporting local action that has a statewide impact…in the service of our public schools.

Southeast/Jenni Hofschulte

I have been thrilled to see local groups who support their public schools pop up around southeastern Wisconsin! Not only are they popping up, they are connecting with one another, sharing best practices and resources.  I am excited to continue to see WPEN grow and for our local groups to continue to work together for all of our public schools!

We can make a big difference in 2023 — because we’ve done it before. Our unifying, pro-public messages reached millions of individuals this year. Thanks to years of action from parents, educators, students, and citizens, the DPI’s education budget request includes a huge increase to special education reimbursements from the state, and Governor Evers, a lifelong educator who was re-elected this fall, has indicated that he supports the DPI’s proposal for a substantial recovery budget.

Making a difference is possible, and it is necessary. We can’t do it without your ongoing commitment. We hope you will make 2023 the year to get more involved than ever and invite you to set up a new or recurring donation to the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools to support our work. Sign up today for our events and trainings, and reach out to your regional organizer so we know what we can do to fully support you in 2023. Wisconsin’s kids are counting on us!

Happy New Year from the Wisconsin Public Education Network!

About the author: Christian Phelps

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