Joint Finance Committee

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee advanced Thursday a Republican-backed plan to increase school spending by $500 million in the next two-year budget, which Democrats argued is not enough to meet the needs of schools and students, particularly for children with disabilities.

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee Thursday advanced a Republican-backed plan to boost funding for schools by $500 million in the next state budget, including $97 million more for children with special needs.

The increase falls short of the $1.4 billion in new funding for K-12 schools proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — and of the $635 million in new funding Republican leaders gave schools two years ago.

GOP members on the Joint Finance Committee called the proposal a significant investment in public education, while Democrats argued the plan undercuts a cornerstone piece of Evers’ budget and doesn’t go far enough in addressing special education funding, which has been flat for a decade.

The spending package passed on an 11-4 party-line vote.

“This budget is a solid investment in kids, it’s a solid investment in our schools,” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the finance committee.

GOP lawmakers described their plan in a news conference before the meeting as their best offer to Evers on school funding.

“This is a good budget for schools,” said Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who is co-vice-chairman of the committee.

But Evers, in a series of tweets, said the GOP plan “doesn’t get us where we need to be.”

“I remain hopeful that I can continue to work with Republicans to give our schools and our kids the resources they need to be successful,” Evers wrote in one of the tweets.

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback declined to comment further.

Nygren dismissed Evers’ budget as an unrealistic benchmark by which to judge the GOP plan.

“That was more of a campaign document than actually a real budget,” he said.

In a statement, John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which represents the state’s 421 school districts, said the package makes important investments in special education and raising the revenue limit for historically low-spending districts, but it is “significantly less” than Evers’ proposal.

He encouraged Republican lawmakers and Evers to continue to discuss the education budget.

The GOP package increases state funding to school districts by $200 per pupil in the first year of the next two-year budget cycle, then by an additional $204 per pupil in the second.

All of those dollars would come from the state, with no new property taxes funding the increase, Olsen said. He said most of the per-pupil funding increase comes from providing about $330 million more for the state school funding formula, which gives more money to schools with low property wealth.

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the school board association, said the average revenue limit plus per-pupil categorical aid is $10,704 per student. He said the yearly increases in the Republican plan would not keep up with the rate of inflation.

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Evers is seeking $611 million more in state general aid, as well as changes to the formula that would provide a set payment per student and factor in poverty.

The GOP package also has a $12.5 million increase for school mental health services, which is short of Evers’ plan to increase funding by $64 million for mental health services.

The $97 million in new funds for special education is double what Assembly Republicans announced Wednesday that they support.

But it’s much less than Evers’ package, which would give districts $606 million more over two years to narrow the gap between services districts are required to give special-needs students and the amount they currently get to provide them. Evers’ plan would bring districts’ reimbursement rate for those services to 60%, compared to the roughly 25% they get now.

Democrats tried to amend the spending plan to bump up the $97 million in new special education money to $606 million, but the motion failed 4-11.

Olsen said the GOP plan would bring the special education reimbursement rate to 30% by the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2020.

“Children in our public school system are worth more than 30%,” Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said.

The Republican special education proposal would provide reimbursement rates similar to what Evers requested during the three previous budget cycles in his role leading the state Department of Public Instruction, Olsen said.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the cost of special education in Wisconsin has increased 10% over the past decade, while the state’s annual appropriation has remained at $368.9 million.

Republicans said their plan would increase funding for children with special needs by 24%, while Democrats framed it as a 84% cut to Evers’ $606 million proposal.

“What’s real is what we currently invest and whether we invest more or less moving forward,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam. “So why that’s a cut only makes sense in the bubble of the governor.”

The plan also scraps Evers’ $15.9 million “Urban Excellence Initiative” targeting Wisconsin’s five largest school districts and $43.7 million in new money for educating bilingual students.

Olsen said Evers would be wise to support the plan.

“I don’t know how it’s going to get better from here,” he said.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, gave the governor what he described as a “warning” in a pair of Twitter posts.

Steineke said he thinks education advocates are trying to criticize Evers’ budget to give him “cover” to veto the entire budget enacted by Republican lawmakers. A veto would “not work out well for” Evers, Steineke said.

“We won’t spend more than the people can afford,” Steineke wrote. “Vetoing the entire budget will not result in a package that moves any closer to (Evers’) number on education funding.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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