Public education in Wisconsin is under assault by the Republican majority on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. All schools will be harmed if the extremists prevail in further dumbing down education in a state that once led the nation when it came to its commitment to K-12 achievement. Rural schools will be hit the hardest.
But it does not have to happen.
Rural Republicans who sit in the Assembly and the Senate face a stark choice: Will they stand with their party right or wrong — in this case wrong — or will they stand with their constituents and defend their schools?
If Republican representatives like Todd Novak of Dodgeville, Loren Oldenburg of Viroqua, Jon Plumer of Lodi, and Travis Tranel of Cuba City fail to join with Democrats in objecting to the scheming by Joint Finance Committee Republicans to close off sources of needed revenue for public education, all schools will suffer. But rural schools could face irreparable damage.
If, on the other hand, these rural Republicans speak up on behalf of the Evers budget — which also provides needed support for health care in rural areas, rural broadband, and programs that aid farmers — they could shift the direction of the debate in the Legislature. In doing so, they could ensure that the school funding plan outlined by Evers, or a reasonable compromise that errs in its direction, will be enacted.
The power that rural legislators have at this point is far greater than is realized. In a chaotic moment, they could become definitional players.
To do that, however, they must distance themselves from the source of the chaos. That’s the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee, which blew up the budget process last week by voting to eliminate revenue streams that Evers had proposed to pay for increased funding for schools, health care, and smart economic and social development.
Much of the coverage of the finance committee’s decisions focused on the fact that the Republicans refused to accept expanded federal funding for Medicaid and other programs, a decision that that governor has correctly characterized as “fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible.” The finance committee Republicans voted to turn away the Medicaid money as part of a partisan temper tantrum orchestrated by out-of-state interests that want to make a point about former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But their decision to reject the money, along with other shortsighted decisions by the committee, shredded the whole of the governor’s budget plan.
In the shredding process, the Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee rejected the will of Wisconsin voters.
Evers made a promise to steer more state money toward rural and urban schools a central premise to the campaign he ran in 2018, when he defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker. That was also a central premise of campaigns run by a number of rural Republicans, who sought to distance themselves from their party’s record of cutting education funding during the Walker years. These Republicans, who campaigned as supporters of public education, must now put the promises of their campaigns ahead of petty partisanship.
The Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee have made this pettiness their watchword. They have scrapped not just proposals by Evers to accept increased federal funding but also modest plans to hike taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, these decisions by the finance committee will short the governor’s budget by $1.4 billion over the next two years.
That’s roughly the amount that Evers has proposed to spend to shore up schools that desperately need the money — especially rural schools.
This brings us to Novak and the other rural legislators. They ran re-election campaigns last year in which they acknowledged the need for more support for rural schools. They were right — about the need for more education funding and about the mood of the electorate.
The emphasis that candidates such as Novak placed on support for public education made it possible for them to win tough races in districts where Democrats were surging. As Novak secured re-election by a handful of votes last fall, Evers swept southwest Wisconsin. The Democrat carried every county in the region except Lafayette, and there he came within 200 votes of winning.
Now, Novak and the other Republicans who ran in 2018 as supporters of rural schools and public education need to keep faith with the communities they represent. They need to work with the governor, either in support of the responsible revenue proposals Evers has put forward or in a sincere effort to identify alternative sources of funding.
Wisconsin is a divided state politically. But the 2018 election results sent a clear signal that voters want to support public education. For Republicans such as Novak, this is the time to recognize and respect that signal. They made promises. Now, they need to keep those promises.
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