Wisconsin’s K-12 public schools would receive a nearly $1.7 billion increase in state funding over the current budget cycle under state Superintendent Tony Evers’ two-year budget proposal released Sunday.
Evers, the Democrat challenging Gov. Scott Walker in the Nov. 6 election, is calling for the state to fund two-thirds of the per-pupil cost to educate students, something that hasn’t happened since the 2004-05 school year, according to Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy.
State agencies are submitting budget requests to the governor’s office this fall and whoever wins the Nov. 6 election will then propose a budget to kickstart the legislative debate in early 2019. If passed on time by the Legislature, the budget takes effect July 1, 2019, and runs through June 30, 2021.
Evers and Walker, who both declined interview requests Saturday through their campaign spokespeople, are jockeying to be considered the most education-friendly candidate in the gubernatorial race.
Declaring himself a “pro-education governor” this summer, Walker has touted his 2017-19 budget increasing K-12 aid to schools to a record dollar amount, though the $5.9 billion in school aids in the current year still falls about $300 million short of where it would have been if the state’s 2010-11 funding level had increased at the rate of inflation.
Walker reduced K-12 aid in his 2011-13 budget to help address a roughly $3 billion budget shortfall. Most of that cut was taken out of teacher paychecks in the form of higher pension and health insurance premium contributions.
Walker proposed $13.7 billion in total state support for public schools for the 2017-19 biennium. That includes about $2.2 billion in property tax credits that are counted as K-12 funding, but don’t go directly into the classroom.
Walker’s campaign spokesman Brian Reisinger touched on the record amount in a Saturday statement:
“Scott Walker made record actual-dollar investments in our schools, the most in state history in what Tony Evers himself called a pro-kid budget,” Reisinger said. “He will continue to make historic investments in schools without raising taxes on hard-working families and seniors to do it.”
Evers’ spokesman Sam Lau referred questions to DPI’s McCarthy.
McCarthy said in an interview Saturday that the last time school finance was overhauled in Wisconsin this way was for the 1995-97 budget cycle when the state added $1.37 billion.
Evers’ request for $15.4 billion in state support for K-12 schools in 2019-21, up 12.3 percent from the $13.7 billion distributed to school districts in the 2017-19 cycle, is similar to what the Legislature agreed to more than two decades ago, McCarthy said.
“I think it’s been a long, long, long time coming,” McCarthy said. “You’re seeing it in referenda results around the state, people voting to raise their own taxes to support their schools. That should be a big wake-up for the state to say maybe it’s time for us to not only redesign how we fund our schools but also contribute enough money so local districts don’t have to pick up so much of the dime.”
Spokespeople for the Legislature’s Republican leadership — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau — did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
State money is allocated to school districts through a complex funding formula that Evers has tried overhauling for years. He was elected state superintendent in 2007.
In the past three budget cycles, Evers’ proposed a plan called “Fair Funding for Our Future” that would provide a base level of support for each student and allocate additional money to low-income students and certain high-cost areas, such as teaching English Language Learners or transportation costs in a large, rural district.
Evers’ biennial proposal calls for an extra $606 million for special education, an area the state has been shorting districts on fully funding for years even as federal aid has shrunk and the number of students requiring special services has grown.
Evers is calling for an increase in total aid of more than $2.6 billion over the current biennium. His proposal also calls for, starting in the second year, eliminating property tax credits that total about $1 billion per year and shifting it to general aid.
The move doesn’t necessarily mean property taxes will rise because Wisconsin has a “revenue limit” in place that effectively caps how much each school district can raise property taxes to fund operations.
Evers’ proposal also raises the revenue limit by $200 per student in the first year and another $204 in the second year. Limits vary by district but on average are between $10,000 and $11,000 per student.
McCarthy called the overall proposal “property-tax neutral,” but said changes like those could cause districts with higher property wealth to see taxes go up while the opposite would play out in lower property wealth districts.
“That is a potentiality of changing a funding formula,” McCarthy said.