Students, Not Shenanigans: What Happened to the PreK-12 Budget this Week….and What YOU Can Do About It

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The last several days have been a whirlwind for public school champions across Wisconsin. A flurry of negotiations, bills, and proposals have hit the capitol that fall shockingly short of meeting kids’ needs

Wisconsin public school champions have been crystal clear in illustrating those needs to lawmakers this year. Increased support for public education students was the most common priority raised by members of the public before the Joint Committee on Finance in April, with parents, teachers, administrators, board members, students, and community members uniting to demand no less than $1,510/per pupil in new spendable funds to their districts to catch up with inflation; 60% reimbursement of special education costs to begin closing the gap between the state’s special ed. support for public and private schools; prioritizing funds where needs are greatest; and putting a moratorium on the use of public dollars on unaccountable private and privately-operated schools.

Wisconsinites rallied around Gov. Evers’ $2.6 billion budget proposal as a baseline for meeting the urgent needs kids have now with the funds we have available. But the deal on the table provides a fraction of that. While we’re still waiting for the fiscal papers, it looks like the “compromise” fails to keep pace with inflation, gutting that proposal and putting less than $1 billion in new spendable aid for public schools. It would instead widen the gaps between what public schools need and what they have, disproportionately harm students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities, English language learners, rural students, and LGBTQ+ students, and dramatically increase the use of public dollars on private schools in what would be the largest standalone growth to voucher programs in Wisconsin history.

The deal announced last week by GOP legislative leaders and Governor Evers includes:

  • An increase in the low revenue ceiling from $10,000/pupil to $11,000/pupil
  • Which was coupled with an enormous increase in public spending on private school vouchers. This would be the largest standalone increase in voucher spending in Wisconsin history.
  • $325/pupil/year in additional public school funds to all districts, falling far short of the $1,510/pupil required to catch up with inflation.
  • $30 million in mental health grants—a tiny fraction of the $270 million in sustainable aid requested by Gov. Evers.
  • A 33.3% reimbursement of public school districts’ special education costs. This would be a nominal 1.5% increase to the current reimbursement rate that harms all students. Meanwhile, Special Needs Vouchers that reach private schools are reimbursed at a >90% rate by the state.
  • A shared revenue bill which tied municipal funds to a ban on advisory referenda and a specific requirement that Milwaukee Public Schools reintroduce 25 School Resource Officers, even though the district had terminated its contract with the police department in 2020.

It is beyond disappointing—it is unacceptable—to think that kids and public schools would be used as a political negotiating wedge at a time when the state is sitting on resources sufficient to put us back on a path toward funding fairness. Still, students’ needs remain unchanged—and unmet.

Wisconsin public education champions have been employing a “budget ambassador” campaign this spring, advocating for the budget kids deserve not just to elected officials but among their peers and in their own local networks. That network of budget ambassadors is ready to mobilize in unwavering support for a budget that would actually meet kids’ needs — and in staunch opposition to any bill or proposal that falls short, that distracts, or that does further harm to our students and public schools.

If you want to join them, here’s what you can do right now:

  1. Sign our petition to become a budget ambassador yourself and show lawmakers — and Team Public — that you’re on the side of kids, whatever it takes.
  2. Contact your lawmakers and ask them to take the bold actions necessary to fix the proposed package on the table and instead pass a budget that closes the gaps and meets kids’ needs. Find your lawmakers here or call 800-362-9472 for the Wisconsin legislature hotline.
  3. Contact Gov. Evers and ask him to take the bold actions necessary to protect Wisconsin kids from any damaging proposals that may reach his desk and to hold firm on a budget that meets students’ needs. Find Gov. Evers’ contact information here.
  4. Follow the process and continue having these conversations in your community.
    1. Put school funding messages into context. An increase in spending on public schools that does not keep pace with inflation or prioritize funds where the needs are greatest does nothing to close the gaps in our status quo.
    2. Make sure Wisconsinites understand the statewide implications of a potential surge in public dollars spent on private schools with little to no transparency or accountability. 
    3. You’re not alone! Reach out to our team anytime for help connecting with public school champions in your area and grow the movement at the local level.

What are public education champions saying about what happened in Madison this week?

See selected reactions and media appearances from public school advocates below.

Heather DuBois Bourenane, Executive Director of Wisconsin Public Education Network, said:
Wisconsin kids’ needs are clear, and they shouldn’t be subject to negotiation. Either we choose to meet those needs, or we choose to do more damage to our children after decades of under-resourcing their public schools and two years of funding frozen at pre-pandemic levels. We know it will take at least $1510 per student just to keep up with inflation in the next biennium, and we know we need to use our surplus to end funding discrimination for kids with disabilities by restoring our reimbursement rate to 90%. Anything less just compromises our kids. We must do better.

“We call on lawmakers to stop playing games with unaccountable voucher schemes and reckless entitlements and meet the needs of kids in public schools as our constitution requires and our conscience demands. It’s not too late to meet kids’ needs and it’s not too late to fix this. We trust the Governor to veto any “compromise” that comes at the expense of our children.

Sandy Whisler, President of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, said:
Public education kids have been underfunded for the past 20 years and now our lawmakers expect us to celebrate an increase in the revenue limit of a paltry $325 per year.  All while lawmakers are choosing to provide the biggest transfer ever of taxpayer money  to a private system of voucher and charter schools.  This is heartbreaking for kids and families who choose their public schools. Once again, our lawmakers are failing our public school kids and the communities those kids live in.

Beth Swedeen, Survival Coalition co-chair, notes: Choice schools can choose not to take students with disabilities, especially significant disabilities and significant behavior challenges. Wisconsin is now funding two separate and unequal education systems and is increasing funding for private schools that do not have to educate students with disabilities and where families have no recourse if their student is not receiving the specialized support they need. We are shocked that the disability community was not consulted about this proposal or larger agreement. This is a bad deal for kids and Wisconsin families, and SB 330 should be vetoed.

Jim Shaw, Vice President of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, said: This proposed budget values private school vouchers more than special education children. While voucher schools receive the largest funding increase in history, our most vulnerable students are provided an inadequate, nominal, one percent increase. This budget is cruel to special education children and unfair to taxpayers.

Julie Underwood, Treasurer of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and Dean Emerita of the UW-Madison School of Education, said: This budget proposal is historically bad for public schools with over 20 years of not keeping pace with inflation. But, it is historically good for private schools, with a $3000 per pupil increase in vouchers.

Chris Hambuch-Boyle, Northwest Regional Organizer at Wisconsin Public Education Network, said in public testimony on Assembly Bill 305 as quoted in the Wisconsin Examiner: All I could think when this bill came out was, two more years. Two more years! Our kids don’t have two more years.

Christian Phelps, Director of Digital Organizing and Communications at Wisconsin Public Education Network, said on UpNorthNews Radio: We tracked public testimony very meticulously this spring, and urban, suburban, rural people; parents, educators, administrators, and students were asking for the same things because people live in the world. They can see that mental health is a problem right now. We’re coming out of a pandemic. We’re going through inflation. We’re coming out of decades of austerity in public schools. So mental health, special education, districts’ ability to free up their budgets—these were priorities for everybody.

Joanna Rizzotto, a Milwaukee Public Schools parent and South Milwaukee educator, said: Our public education system in Wisconsin is in a state of emergency. Student and family needs are drastically increasing and the number of high quality professionals needed to meet those needs are decreasing. This is what the intentional dismantling of a public good looks like. . . . The commitment to privatization and products is not an investment in the majority of our children whom public education serves. We’re long past overdue to speak about that plainly. There are real lives in the balance; real children and their healthy physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development are at stake.

Molly Moody, a public school parent of two, said: It is time for us all to draw our eyes to the systematic dismantling of public education that is occuring within our state. Without continued support for adequate funding to public, local, community-centered schools, parents will be forced to educate their kids outside of the communities they are living in.

Kit Kerschensteiner, Interim Executive Director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, said in a press release: The education budget package that is currently moving forward is an affront to Wisconsin students with disabilities and the public schools that serve them. The class of 2023 has never known a year where school funding kept up with inflation, and they’ve never known a year where public-school special education reimbursement was higher than 31%. Meanwhile DRW regularly speaks to distraught parents whose students were ejected from special needs voucher program when their needs were deemed to be too great for the schools to handle, even though these schools are receiving reimbursement at over 90%. Why are these schools getting increases while public schools are left behind? This is deeply inequitable.

Beth Swedeen, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, said in a press release:Wisconsin is now funding two separate and unequal education systems and is increasing funding for private schools that do not have to educate students with disabilities and where families have no recourse if their student is not receiving the specialized support they need.

Amy Mizialko, President of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, said on WISN 12: There should absolutely be no support for private voucher schools with public taxpayer dollars. … It’s not a compromise. It’s an attack specifically on the city of Milwaukee and residents and our students.

Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, President of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, writes: Wisconsin is sitting on $7 billion budget surplus and this so-called funding compromise only compromises our students. A child graduating from a public school this month has never seen a state funding increase that has kept up with inflation. Governor Evers, WEAC calls on you to veto these proposals when they come to your desk.

About the author: Christian Phelps

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