Public education advocates from school districts across southern Wisconsin blasted GOP members of the Legislature’s budget committee Monday for slashing Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed increase in K-12 funding, even as districts are expected to get billions in federal COVID-19 relief.
Districts can tap the federal money over the next four years for a host of expenses, including mental health services, sanitizing facilities, maintaining operations, keeping staff on the payroll and addressing learning loss among students.
But the aid isn’t meant to cover rising costs and salary increases, officials said.
“All students and staff across our state deserve better than zero,” Verona School District Superintendent Tremayne Clardy said outside the Capitol. “This budget simply does not meet the needs of students and families across the state.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed giving K-12 schools $1.6 billion over the next two years. Republicans who control the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee instead allocated $128 million — an increase more in line with past aid to K-12 schools.
Per-pupil spending on public education nationwide grew by 23% from 2008 to 2018, but only 15% in Wisconsin, an increase that places the state 38th in the nation in public education spending, according to a September report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.
According to the report, Wisconsin’s overall per-pupil K-12 spending levels have lagged well behind the national average in recent years. Between 2011 and 2018, Wisconsin’s per-pupil spending increased by 4.3%, from $11,774 to $12,285. That increase ranked Wisconsin 49th in the nation in terms of percentage change during that period and compares to 18.9% nationwide.
Critics of the Republican biennial budget plan also said districts across the state could be forced to hold referendums to seek support from local taxpayers. District leaders also fear cuts to student mental health and special education supports as well as cuts to the arts to make up for budget shortfalls.
“As we have said over and over, when crafting the K-12 budget we took into consideration the massive $2.4 billion in federal funding coming to our school districts. This equates to an average of $2,898 per student,” Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said in a statement Monday. “On top of that, we still increased funding by nearly $100 million to our schools for student mental health and special education.
“Under our plan, schools that have been largely in-person over the last year are guaranteed to receive a minimum of $781 per student, more than the per-student increase in the last budget, which Gov. Evers signed,” he said.
Madison School District Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds were meant to boost learning in communities that were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and not to pay for sustained, yearly expenses.
Near miss on federal funding
Prior to last Thursday, allocations for K-12 education in the Republicans’ proposed budget were $430 million less than needed to ensure the state’s schools would receive about $2.3 billion in federal pandemic aid.
The budget committee solved the problem by cutting schools and technical colleges’ share of local property taxes by $647 million and backfilling the lost revenue with state aid. The move would ensure that the state is spending enough on schools to qualify for the federal aid, but it wouldn’t provide schools any additional state-authorized money beyond the $128 million Republicans already earmarked for them.
Democrats have decried the maneuver as a shell game and challenged the GOP to devote more state funding to schools in light of the state’s unprecedented $4.4 billion surplus. Republicans say the move ensures the state will get the $2.3 billion in federal aid.
“With this budget the state will be funding two-thirds of local education costs and will be meeting the benchmarks needed to bring this federal funding to Wisconsin schools. Schools in my district will be getting unprecedented increases,” Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, a member of the Joint Finance Committee, said in a statement.
But rural districts are slated to receive considerably less in federal aid, and school advocates say it’s not wise to rely on one-time federal money to keep districts afloat. They insist that Republican legislators need to commit to Wisconsin schools by sending them more state funding.
Nathan Knitt, director of business services with the Columbus School District, said his district has already seen at least three recent teacher resignations, vacancies the district has decided not to fill due to budget concerns. The district has roughly 1,300 students enrolled in grades 4K-12, and its student-to-teacher ratio has been steadily increasing over the years. Knitt said it’s becoming more difficult to retain teachers with highly sought-after skill sets in the district.
“We were in the high teens, now we’re about in the low 20s, about 21 students per teacher,” he said. “For Columbus, we’re going to see negative effects if the budget passes as is.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.