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Disagreement between Senate, Assembly leaders leaves bills in jeopardy

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, right, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

Assembly Republicans called Tuesday for about $500 million more in K-12 school aid over the next two years, far short of the $1.4 billion boost proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The amount includes a $50 million boost to educate children with special needs, a 13.5% increase over current levels, but less than a tenth of Evers’ proposed increase.

With a pivotal committee vote scheduled for Thursday, Assembly Republicans have not yet reached accord with their Senate colleagues on how the state should fund schools for the next two years. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Wednesday he thinks such a deal is close at hand.

The Assembly GOP plan for the next state schools budget calls for increasing state funding to districts for mental health services by $23 million and for high-cost transportation aid by about $5 million, lawmakers said Wednesday.

“This will be the highest level of investment that we have ever made in our public schools in the history of Wisconsin,” Vos said.

Yet the plan falls about $900 million shy of Evers’ proposed increase and sets up a potential clash on special-education funding, a top priority for Evers. The governor has said the increase is needed to make up for a recent streak of funding cuts or small increases in state support for schools, and to narrow the gap between what schools spend on special education and what they receive from the state.

Evers’ plan includes a special-education boost of about $606 million and a mental-health funding increase of about $64 million. It would pump $611 million into general school aids through a revised state funding formula that would guarantee a basic level of funding for each student, but provide additional funding for low-income students.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, appear to be nearing consensus among themselves on elements of the next schools budget. But there could be disagreement on how it’s provided, and how much comes from the state versus local taxpayers.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told the State Journal Tuesday that Senate Republicans are discussing increasing funding to school districts by about $200 per pupil in each of the next two years, in a way that would mirror the most recent budget that former Gov. Scott Walker signed in 2017. It gave funding increases through a type of state aid distributed to districts as a flat per-pupil payment, not dependent on the property-tax wealth of an individual district.

The Assembly GOP proposal would increase districts’ revenue limits by $200 per pupil in the 2019-20 fiscal year, then an additional $204 per pupil more in 2020-21. About two-thirds of that, on average, would come in increased state aid through the state’s funding formula, which is weighted toward districts with less property wealth. The remaining one-third could be collected by districts increasing their local property tax levies.

The Assembly GOP plan would reimburse districts for about 28% of the cost of services they’re required to provide to special-needs students, compared to the roughly 25% they get now. Evers’ plan, meanwhile, would increase that reimbursement rate to about 60%.

Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee criticized the Assembly GOP plan as short-changing Wisconsin students, especially those with special needs.

Republican legislative leaders also held brief budget talks with Evers Wednesday. Heading into Thursday’s budget panel vote, among the topics GOP lawmakers still need to discuss is the total amount by which GOP lawmakers want to increase state aid for schools, Fitzgerald said after the meeting.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out, is what the big number is,” said Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.

Fitzgerald said Evers, during their meeting, stressed the importance of special education funding. Fitzgerald said GOP senators also want to increase special education funding, but he declined to say by how much.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Evers said he thought it was productive.

“Criminal justice reform, education and transportation seem like issues where we have a lot of opportunity to make progress,” Evers said. “Wisconsinites elected us to work together so I hope we can get things done for the people of our state.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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