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2023-25 BUDGET

Gov. Tony Evers proposes $2 billion increase in Wisconsin public school funding

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Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday unveiled plans to spend nearly $2 billion more on public schools in areas like literacy, staffing and mental health services, a proposal the Democratic governor plans to push next year if reelected to a second term this fall.

Evers’ proposal for the 2023-25 biennial budget, which would tap into a portion of Wisconsin’s projected $5 billion state budget surplus, comes almost two months before his Nov. 8 matchup with Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels. The plan would need to be approved by the GOP-led Legislature next year in order to go into effect, a tall order given the gulf that has separated the two sides over the past two budgets.

“Budgets are about priorities, and that’s why building our biennial budget always begins for me with doing what’s best for our kids, and we know our kids, families, and schools need our help now more than ever to get caught up, get more educators and staff in our classrooms, and ensure every kid has the support and resources they need to be successful,” Evers said in a statement.

Evers’ K-12 proposal would spend more than $240 million on mental health aid for students, which would allow each school district to hire at least one full-time mental health professional, the governor said. It would also expand access to subsidized school meals and spend $750 million over the 2023-25 biennium to increase special education aid.

The rate at which special education in Wisconsin’s public schools is funded has been on a steady decline, from 70% in 1973, according to a 2019 report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, to the current rate of roughly 30%, as costs increase.

Michels, the millionaire co-owner of Brownsville-based Michels Corp., summed up Evers’ proposal as “more money and more bureaucracy.”

“The tired, old Evers approach has not worked,” Michels said in a statement. “He’s spent his career in education and our schools keep getting worse, especially (Milwaukee Public Schools). I will get Wisconsin headed in the right direction. I will empower parents with greater access to information and more options for their kids.”

Michels has pledged to expand private school vouchers to all students in Wisconsin, a proposal Evers has opposed.

Revenue limits

The governor’s plan would also increase school district revenue limits by $350 per pupil in the 2023-24 school year and another $650 per pupil in the following year. Per-pupil aid would also increase under Evers’ plan, by $24 per student in the 2023-24 school year and $45 in the following year. In addition, Evers said his proposal to direct about $800 million in new state aid to schools would ensure that per-pupil aid increases do not raise property taxes.

School district revenue limits are capped by the Legislature, limiting what schools can raise from state aid and property taxes. With revenue limits capped, many districts have asked voters to approve local levy increases in order to cover costs and maintain staffing levels.

School officials have repeatedly pointed to the 0% increase in revenue limits in the state’s current biennial budget as a main reason they’re unable to hire more staff to support special-needs students or to pay the current staff higher wages.

Other components to Evers’ plan include increased spending on literacy programs, out-of-school funding and to boost staffing.

State Superintendent Jill Underly, who joined Evers in the announcement, will formally request the funding later this month.

“We must provide robust assistance in our upcoming budget to meet the needs of our children,” Underly said in a statement. “Staff working in our schools are doing incredible work every single day. But with an unclear picture of future revenue, and a growing labor shortage, a historic investment is necessary to stabilize our school system.”

GOP criticism

Republicans have criticized Evers over the last several years due in part to his efforts to temporarily close schools at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as his vetoes of several GOP-authored bills, including measures that would have broken up the Milwaukee school district and made private voucher schools available to all residents.

Evers also struck down a GOP bill seeking to establish a “Parental Bill of Rights,” to allow parents to sue a school district or school official if they don’t allow parents to determine the names and pronouns used for the child while at school, review instructional materials and outlines used by the child’s school and access any education-related information regarding the child, among other measures.

“This proposal, if it becomes part of the executive budget request, will be considered by the Joint Committee on Finance during the legislative budget season next year,” Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful budget committee, said in a statement. “Lacking from this proposal is a plan to protect parents’ rights to have more choices and involvement in their child’s education, which is critical to supporting families in our state.”

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