Many local Democratic state legislators say much of the future of K-12 education in Wisconsin depends on the outcome of the Nov. 6 election, particularly the gubernatorial race between state superintendent Tony Evers, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Legislators spoke at a forum at Christ Presbyterian Church Wednesday night, stressing mainly to an older crowd that their signature education initiatives, including restoring collective bargaining rights for public schoolteachers and making significant changes to the state Legislature’s school funding formula, rest on the election outcome.
“As far as Republicans we can work with, we try to talk to Republicans every time we’re there and we’re not successful yet,” said state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton. “November is coming.”
The panel of legislators also included Madison area state Reps. Melissa Sargent, Lisa Subeck and Chris Taylor, as well as state Sens. John Erpenbach, Mark Miller and Fred Risser.
Dane County Supervisor Shelia Stubbs, who is set to become a state representative following an uncontested general election, was also part of the panel.
Many of the legislators who spoke on the panel lamented that what they’ve wanted to see in Wisconsin’s school districts, particularly more funding from the state, hasn’t been possible under the Walker administration.
“What I do know is that our system is broken,” Sargent said. “Our system is broken and our kids are suffering under this current administration in a way that is heartbreaking and egregious. We need to be funding our education in a way that supports our children, that they can dream and be our future leaders.”
Though it may be nice to dream about the future, Subeck said Democrats can’t bank on winning in November.
“I’m not so optimistic that Democrats or pro-education folks will take over everything,” Subeck said. “I’m not that optimistic. But I am optimistic that we’re taking the first steps. We can hopefully stop expanding the voucher program and then find ways to shrink that. With a Tony Evers administration, we could potentially look at changing the school funding formula in a really good way.”
The school funding formula is a complex cost-sharing formula that determines how much local school districts must contribute to education costs and how much of the tab the state should pay.
Evers said in August that if elected, he would propose to restore the state’s commitment to fund two-thirds of public school costs, which would be a significant increase. State aid currently represents about 45 percent of school funding.
Also sought by Democrats is a halt to the expansion of the school voucher program. Primarily run in the Racine and Milwaukee School Districts, the program allows for students to attend a private school while having the state provide payment.
“I’m a strong believer that we ought to do away with the voucher program,” Risser said, who noted his belief that public funds shouldn’t go to private schools and not have public oversight.
But schools beyond regular public schools have made their way to Madison. With the approval of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, two independent charter schools opened their doors this fall.
The future of those two schools, as well as the rest of the state’s K-12 schools, has a lot riding on Nov. 6, according to the panelists. The latest Marquette Law School Poll shows the race for governor at a near tie, with Walker leading among likely voters with 47 percent to Ever's 46 percent.
Wednesday's event was sponsored by the group Grandparents for Madison Public Schools, Madison Teachers Inc. and the Wisconsin Public Education Network.