Wisconsin’s schools are the cornerstones of our communities and our state as a whole. It is here that students grow, discover their interests, and have formative experiences that shape who they will become. Ensuring our schools have the resources they need has always been and always will be a top-priority issue for me. That is why I was so disappointed when my Republican colleagues recently chose to ignore Governor Evers’ call for a special session to take up a bill that would have put over $500 million toward K-12 education, the University of Wisconsin System, and technical colleges.
This comes on the heels of the Joint Committee on Finance originally putting forth an insufficient education budget plan that needed to be amended because it jeopardized $2.3 billion in federal coronavirus support for our schools. The budget that was approved by Governor Evers with partial vetoes includes a $128 million increase in education spending, an under 2% increase and 10% less than the governor had initially proposed. It also included an increase in general school aid, however, because there was no corresponding increase to revenue limits which cap how much money schools can receive from state funds and local property taxes, schools cannot actually use that aid. Instead, these funds will require local school districts to lower property tax levies. According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the budget’s education spending is just above the federal maintenance of effort (MOE) requirements that outline how much money Wisconsin must spend on education to qualify for federal coronavirus relief funds.
Wisconsin’s schools deserve to be provided with funds that they can use as needed to ensure our kids are receiving the highest quality education possible. One-time federal coronavirus assistance is not enough. The rhetoric from my colleagues who have claimed that this budget made historic investments in education is not only misleading, it is also a slap in the face to the many hardworking students, teachers, school administrators, and other school staff across the state. We can and should do better for them. That is why I have always supported Governor Evers’ efforts to prioritize our schools, despite the many challenges that have come up along the way.
Although the final legislative budget document did not invest nearly as much in education as Governor Evers’ original budget proposal would have, rather than play politics, the governor signed the budget with partial vetoes so Wisconsin’s schools would not miss out on critical federal funds. I was pleased when the governor announced in his veto message that he would also be putting $100 million in federal stimulus funds – separate from the budget – towards our schools. This is a much-needed use of this federal assistance.
One of Governor Evers’ partial vetoes of the budget prevented the transfer of $550 million into Wisconsin’s budget stabilization or “rainy day” fund, which currently has a record high balance and is a place where this money could not have been used to immediately address Wisconsin’s most pressing needs. On July 26th, Governor Evers called for the Legislature to convene in a special session to take up his proposal, LRB-4297, which would take the $550 million he retrieved from the rainy day fund and put it towards K-12 schools and higher education. More specifically, that breakdown would have been: $240 million to increase per-pupil aid by $146 per student, $200 million for special education aids, $90 million for the UW System, and $20 million for Wisconsin’s technical colleges.
Despite the fact that our schools have suffered crushing losses as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and are in need of more support than the budget provided, Republican leadership gaveled-in and gaveled-out of the special session without so much as a word of debate. This has been done by the majority party with previous special sessions called by Governor Evers, including most recently when he called on the State Legislature to take up a bill that would have expanded BadgerCare. When legislators choose not to engage on important issues like these, we fail the people who elected us to take action, debate, and bring about positive change as a result of these deliberations.
It is a sad day when an opportunity to discuss increasing funding for our schools is immediately dismissed. Unfortunately, our children are the ones who will ultimately pay the price. However, we are kidding ourselves if we think investments in education are not also investments in the success of our entire state. Our schools are deeply intertwined with so many aspects of our lives. The longer we put off adequately supporting our schools, the more serious the consequences will be. I will always fight for our schools, but in order for necessary change to be made, we need everyone to join this important fight.