Wisconsin Schools Should See More Money, But Not As Much As Originally Promised

Wisconsin's K-12 schools are on target to see more money in the next two years – just not quite as much as they’d originally been promised by the Governor.

It was months ago that we first heard about Gov. Scott Walker’s K-12 funding proposal for the current two-year state budget. Since February, Walker has been touring the state, touting a record $649 million increase for state spending on public schools.

Walker has called education a ‘top priority’ for the new biennium.

But, the state’s budget-writing committee has been bogged down with other matters – including discussions about the challenging Department of Transportation budget, and more recently, proposed financial incentives for electronics giant Foxconn.

So, education funding was one of the last items left when the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee met Monday. And the number proposed for public schools looked smaller than it had earlier this year.

Several democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) claimed that what was once a top priority, has fallen swiftly down the list at the hands of legislative Republicans.

“I think it falls short, and I think you guys shouldn’t get away with saying that you think public schools are a priority, and continue your massive expansion at school privatization that we simply can’t afford and is ineffective,” Hintz said, addressing his GOP colleagues.

Hintz and the committee’s other Democratic members came into yesterday's meeting hoping to boost spending, specifically for traditional public schools.

While Gov. Walker wanted to commit $649 million, the Democrats proposed committing $728 million.

Republicans, who hold the majority on the joint finance committee, said no. They actually cut $10 million from the governor's proposal, saying the move aligned with funding reductions Walker proposed for rural school districts.

School choice also drew attention during Monday’s vote.

The committee approved a GOP plan to loosen income requirements for Wisconsin’s statewide school voucher program.

Right now, that program is limited to families living at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The new plan makes more families eligible, by raising that number to 220 percent.

Democratic Sen. Katrina Shankland pointed out that the state is already pouring a significant amount of public money into private education.

“[The] Legislative Fiscal Bureau, in 2015, calculated that up to $800 million would be shifted from our public schools over to private schools through 2025,” Shankland explained. “So this budget not only shifts more money to taxpayers to pay for vouchers, but it also changes the income limit!”

Some GOP committee members expressed disappointment too – but for very different reasons.

Wauwatosa Sen. Leah Vukmir is among the Republicans who've favored increasing voucher income limits for the statewide program to up to 300 percent. That would match limits set for families in the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs.

“While I’m pleased that we’ve increased the participation in the school choice program from 185 percent to 220 percent of the federal poverty level, everyone knows that I would have preferred a greater expansion,” Vukmir said.

The panel rejected that broader expansion, because not all republicans were on board.

Now that the Joint Finance Committee has completed its work on the K-12 budget, transportation will be the last big-ticket item in front of the panel. Then, the entire $76 billion budget goes to the full legislature for approval.

Lawmakers had hoped to finish budget talks earlier this summer. Spending will continue at current levels, until a new plan passes.