Over several weeks, Wisconsinites learned selected bits of budgetary information through a carefully controlled stream of information to various media sources. The veil was finally lifted Feb. 20 when Gov. Scott Walker gave his biennial budget address and formally introduced his 2013-15 budget.
Before discussing exactly what our governor and Republican leaders are proposing for K-12 education in this budget, it is worth rehashing our previous budget, which required public schools to make extreme fiscal sacrifices ($1.6 billion in lost revenue) in the name of austerity. But in that very same budget, the state found enough money to expand private school voucher offerings and increase overall voucher spending.
Fast forward to Walker’s 2013-15 budget proposal. While general school aids are being increased (albeit by a nominal amount that won’t remotely offset the loss from last session), spending authority for public schools (spending caps) will be held constant. Effectively, this aid increase will not end up in schools, instead being directed to property tax relief. Schools won’t be allowed to pay for any new teachers, books or curriculum, or keep up with the costs of inflation.
However, in contrast, our rapidly expanding private voucher schools would see a total spending increase of nearly 30 percent. Their per student spending amounts would expand by over 8 percent for K-8 students and over 20 percent for high school students. Walker wants to make nine additional school districts eligible for vouchers.
On top of general private voucher school expansion, the governor’s budget proposal also attempts to advance two pieces of new policy that were too extreme to pass last session: the special needs voucher program and the creation of a statewide independent charter authority.
When taken in totality, Walker is proposing to spend an additional $94 million on the education of approximately 30,000 to 40,000 private school students while giving only $129 million to the over 870,000 public school students.
A theme emerges when considering Walker’s first two budgets. Despite vastly different revenue conditions, our public schools are being asked to do more with less while a growing portion of our tax dollars is being spent to create a duplicate and unaccountable school system that gives vouchers to parents to pay for private schooling. And while the governor is recommending that those voucher schools be evaluated in the same fashion our public schools are evaluated, there is no set of consequences for a voucher school that is severely underperforming.
Wisconsin deserves a better pathway to an improved education system than the one Walker has presented us, and the Legislature can still correct his shortsightedness.
State Superintendent Tony Evers has crafted a bold school funding reform initiative that better reflects the cost of educating our students and brings much needed transparency to our funding formula. As a state, we have the current and projected revenue to cover the costs of the proposal. What it comes down to is whether Wisconsin is truly interested in improving the education of all our students or if shifting our tax dollars to cover the costs of private school tuition has become of greater importance. Do we really want to privatize Wisconsin’s public school system?
Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, is a member of the Wisconsin Assembly.