Kids getting on school bus, State Journal generic file photo

Almost a decade after Tony Evers first floated what he called the “Fair Funding for Our Future” rewrite of the state’s convoluted school funding formula, the proposal has finally made its way into the state budget.

The Democratic governor included the funding formula revision in his executive budget released Thursday. As state superintendent during four previous budgets, Evers sought to shake up the formula to deliver more funding to high poverty and rural school districts, but former Gov. Scott Walker did not advance the proposal. After narrowly beating Walker in the November election, Evers was able to ensure its inclusion.

Despite the proposed school funding change being highlighted first in a section on education in a budget overview, Evers did not mention the topic during his budget address Thursday evening to the state Legislature.

Other major proposals in the two-year education spending package largely reflect what Evers requested last fall as head of the state Department of Public Instruction.

He is seeking to reinstate a defunct commitment for the state to fund two-thirds of public school costs, add $606 million for special education, direct $64 million more toward mental health services and programs, and create $20 million in grants for after-school programs.

Additionally, Evers is looking to suspend the expansion of independent charter schools, freeze enrollment in the Milwaukee, Racine and statewide voucher programs, and phase out the voucher program for students with disabilities.

Prior to the governor’s Thursday evening budget address, Democratic lawmakers and state education advocates lauded the proposals.

“This is the people’s budget that puts the children first,” Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, said at a news conference. “What’s best for our children is what’s best for our state.”

Republicans signaled there could be room for agreement on funding K-12 education. Asked to identify areas of compromise in the overall budget, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Republicans want to provide two-thirds of funding for schools, but how remains a point of contention.

“The problem is his numbers are so out of touch with our ability to pay unless you want to have massive tax increases,” Vos said. “It’s difficult to say we can compromise in this area or that until we look at the totality of the budget.”

Joanne Juhnke, policy director at Wisconsin Family Ties, said Wisconsin has fallen “desperately far behind” on funding special education, especially since money for special education has been frozen for a decade and the costs for teaching children with disabilities have risen.

The new funding for special education would bump up the reimbursement rate of eligible costs for school districts to 30 percent in 2019-20 and 60 percent in 2020-21. This year, the state expects to reimburse 25 percent of the cost of special education.

Evers’ budget also outlines a $15.9 million “Urban Excellence Initiative” to improve the Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Racine school districts. Enrollment in the five districts constitutes about 20 percent of the approximately 860,000 public school students in Wisconsin.

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The proposal includes:

  • $5 million in 2020-21 to help the five districts create or expand preschool programs.
  • $7.2 million to open up eligibility for summer school grants to all five districts — currently Milwaukee is only covered under this program.
  • $1.2 million to an existing program that encourages highly credential teachers to work in high-poverty districts.
  • $500,000 for training and support of principals by the Wisconsin Urban Leadership Institute.
  • $2 million for community collaboration to help students with health, housing and transportation.

Central to Evers’ two-year education proposal is the revamp of state general aid, to which he is seeking an additional $618.8 million over two years.

The state’s main pot for school funding, known as equalization aid, is meant to bring balance to low property value districts and high property value districts, which have a better capacity for raising money through property taxes.

Factors such as student enrollment, the educational costs shared by the state and school district, and the property value per student result in districts being able to receive money across three levels of funding. High-value districts, though, can see little or no money from the aid.

Under Evers’ proposal, districts would receive a flat $3,000 for each student, regardless of property wealth.

It also factors in poverty by counting low-income students — determined by those who receive a free or reduced-price lunch — as 1.2 full-time-equivalent students. That would increase a district’s total enrollment count in the funding formula in order to boost the money for districts with higher concentrations of low-income students when property values are brought into the equation.

Revenue limits on school districts — the combination of allowed state aid and property tax increases — would increase by $200 per student in 2019-20 and by $204 in 2020-21 under the budget. Walker had reduced and then kept tight caps on the limits in order to keep property taxes flat. Evers has said increased state aid would keep property taxes from rising under higher revenue caps.

Evers is also eyeing some major changes to the state’s voucher programs that provide taxpayer subsidies for income-eligible students to attend private schools. Enrollment in the Milwaukee, Racine and statewide programs would be frozen in the 2020-21 school year based at the number of students receiving vouchers during the previous year for each respective program.

New students would then be eligible to receive vouchers as other children either graduate or leave the programs.

The former state schools chief, though, is looking to end the newest voucher program for students with disabilities. No new students could enroll after the 2019-20 school year. According to a budget overview, the move to phase out the program is influenced by the comparatively high reimbursement rate private schools receive to educate children with disabilities versus what public schools receive.

Evers budget also cites a lack of state or federal standards regarding special education at private schools as a reason to end the program.

For parents who send their children to private elementary or secondary schools, Evers is also seeking to eliminate a tax deduction for tuition that would save $24.3 million over two years.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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