Talking With Fourth Graders


For many fourth graders in southern and central Wisconsin, spring means a trip to the State Capitol as part of the required study of Wisconsin's geography, history, culture and government.  For most Northern schools, a trip to Madison is not possible, so I do my best to bring the State Capitol to them.  In the last few weeks I’ve visited with Alex Johnson’s students at Cooper Elementary in Superior, Rebecca Ness’ class at Cameron Elementary and Donna Bell’s students at Northwoods Elementary in Minong.


Seeing so many engaged students and their excellent teachers helps me understand why local voters backed so many referendum questions for our schools at the spring election this year.  It is encouraging to know that the people I represent value public education so much that they are willing to make up for steep state cuts with local property tax dollars.


It was also encouraging to see the Governor take the time to come to a part of the state that all too often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to state funding.  At an event in Rice Lake, the Governor signed a bill which provides limited incentives for new teachers to choose rural schools.  While I’m glad the Governor made the trip, I wish he came bearing more.


The bill he signed, AB 793, will provide a small amount of loan forgiveness, but only for newly hired teachers.  Unfortunately, the bill won’t help teachers already working in rural areas or school districts that aren’t hiring new teachers.  And it does nothing to help alleviate the steep cuts to our schools that makes it harder and harder to keep or attract experienced teachers.


Governor Walker used devastating cuts to public schools to balance his first budget.  And in the four years following those cuts our communities lost 85 teachers. In the last few years, voters across Northern Wisconsin have passed referendum after referendum in support of their schools.  Following those votes the Governor and the legislature seemed to realize the needs to address that weakness.  His recent budget did contain a small increase, on paper, for public schools.


But his claim that our public schools will be receiving more from the state isn’t true.  The state budget adopted last summer provides less than 1% more for children in Wisconsin’s public schools than the 2009-2010 budget.  Worse yet, that tiny increase is erased by a new policy inserted into the same budget to pay unaccountable voucher school operators with aid diverted directly out of public schools.


This means that tens of millions of our tax dollars are hijacked along the way and delivered instead to voucher schools.  The 2015-2016 state budget gives at least 21% more per student to voucher school operators than it does to public schools.  What do taxpayers in the North get for our dollars diverted to voucher school?  Nothing that I know of.


They certainly don’t get accountability.  Voucher operators still do not have to account for their achievement, their safety or their quality nearly as much as public schools do.


It’s time to stop handing state tax dollars to unaccountable voucher operators who’ve gotten an 89% increase in state tax dollars over three budgets at the expense of our public schools.   It’s time to stop forcing hard-working taxpayers to make up for state cuts to vital schools with property taxes.  And It’s time to stop claiming we’re sending more to public schools when voucher operators get to hijack public tax dollars along the way.


The Governor and my Republican colleagues continue to talk the talk of supporting public schools.  It will take more than an occasional trip to Northern Wisconsin or a handful of inconsequential bills to prove that they mean what they say.  The fourth graders learning in classrooms in Minong and Cameron, in Rice Lake and Park Falls, in all our schools, deserve better than what they’re getting.