The leaders of the state’s budget-writing committee are divided over a school funding plan Assembly lawmakers are considering that includes a $91 million cut to Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $649 million spending bump for public schools.
The split signals another division among Republican legislative leaders on the most significant portions of the state’s next two-year budget.
Tensions have already led to an impasse among both houses and with Walker over the state’s next transportation budget, and Walker’s proposal for the state to self-insure state workers has been rejected by leaders of his own party.
Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said Friday that Assembly Republicans have been drafting a plan for state spending on schools for 2017-19.
The plan would cut Walker’s proposed per-pupil funding increase and target more money to school districts that spend less than most others, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo prepared for Nygren and obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Walker’s 2017-19 budget calls for an increase of $649 million for school districts on a per-student basis. The Assembly proposal would provide $90.8 million less for that funding source.
The Assembly also adds $92.2 million more in revenue limit authority for school districts that spend less than most others and adds $30 million more for the state’s general funding mechanism for schools than what Walker has proposed.
“It’s not a firm proposal. It’s a work in progress,” Nygren said. “I think the concept of it is something we generally support — to put more of our resources toward schools that have actually been held back over the years.”
But Senate Republicans oppose the idea.
“We are sticking with the governor’s (proposed per-pupil increase). That is non-negotiable,” said Senate Education Committee chairman and Joint Finance Committee member, Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon.
Olsen said Senate Republicans are not crafting their own K-12 spending plan.
Budget committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, also said she will not support the Assembly’s proposal.
Darling said the $649 million increase that Walker has been crisscrossing the state for months to promote will be tough to change.
Multiple state funding sources
In Wisconsin, school districts receive the largest amount of their state funding through a general fund that distributes money through a formula that gives more to districts with more students with challenges, including those who live in poverty. Districts also receive money from several funding streams including through a certain amount per pupil, currently set at $250 per student.
Walker’s plan increases the amount of money schools get per student by $200 in the 2017-18 school year and by another $204 in the 2018-19 school year. Public school officials and advocates have widely supported the idea.
“Because of that positive support of that funding ... (school districts) are not going to be happy if that is changed,” Darling said.
Darling and Olsen said they agree with the Assembly’s concept to give more money to low-revenue districts.
Lawmakers say such districts have been “locked in” at their low spending levels for decades because state lawmakers in 1993 imposed caps on how much districts can spend — a limit that is based upon enrollment changes, an inflationary increment, and each district’s revenue from the prior years, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
The Assembly’s proposal would increase the per-student amount by $150 in the 2017-18 school year and by $200 in the 2018-19 school year.
“The way the governor proposed it (the per-student increase) went to everybody, so I guess the differences comes down to if you believe there has been an inequity in the state over the last 24 years that the formula has been in place,” Nygren said. “At some point you have to fix it.”
Darling said she agrees that districts spending less than others because of state-imposed revenue limits set decades ago should be allowed to raise more revenue, but said that goal would likely require new money to accomplish. Walker has said he would veto any state budget plan that increases the tax burden on Wisconsin residents.
“I give them credit for looking at how to get money into the lower-spending districts and I agree with the strategy but I mentioned to them, usually you need new money,” Darling said. “Taking money away from other districts is usually a big issue. That will be a very tough call for most in our (Senate) caucus.”
The Assembly proposal also puts $30 million more than what Walker proposed in the state’s general funding formula.
Tom Evenson, spokesman for Walker, said the governor will review the proposal but is “committed to fully funding public education while enacting reforms that lead to continued property tax relief.”