Republicans agree on $500 million more for Wisconsin schools

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Republicans agree on $500 million more for Wisconsin schools

By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press

May 23, 2019 09:15 AM

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Wisconsin Public Education Network leader Heather DuBois Bourenane, right, says a Republican K-12 education plan that increases funding by $500 million over two years isn’t enough to meet needs of districts, on Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Madison, Wis. The Republican funding plan is $900 million less than what Gov. Tony Evers proposed.


Scott Bauer

AP Photo


MADISON, Wis.

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature have agreed on a $500 million increase in K-12 school funding over the next two years, including $100 million more for special education, the vice-chairman of the budget-writing committee said ahead of a key vote Thursday.

Senate and Assembly Republicans reached the deal that the Joint Finance Committee will vote on later Thursday, said Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican who is on the panel and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The position puts them at odds with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the former state superintendent of public schools, who proposed a $1.4 billion increase over two years, with $606 million for special education. That is about six times more than Republicans want to spend on special education.

Evers called the Republican funding level inadequate.

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“Unfortunately, the plan announced today by Republicans doesn’t get us where we need to be,” Evers tweeted. “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. There’s still a long way to go in the budget process, but we’re not going to negotiate against ourselves or our kids.”

Under the Republican deal, special education funding would increase by $100 million. That would increase the state’s reimbursement rate to 26% in the first year and 30% in the second, Olsen said. It would be the first increase in more than a decade and addresses complaints from schools about a lack of funding that requires them to tap general aid money to pay for more expensive special needs students.

Olsen said school board members, business managers and superintendents who deal most intimately with budgets will be happy with the Republican funding level.

“They knew from the get-go what (Evers) was saying wasn’t realistic,” Olsen said.

Democrats and public school advocates agreed with Evers that it wasn’t enough.

“We’re not above begging,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, before the committee meeting. “We have been on our knees begging for our kids the past 10 years. We’re sick of begging for crumbs. We’re here to demand more of that this time around.”

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, one of four Democrats on the budget committee, said the Republican funding increase was a “giant step backwards.”

“They’re still failing our Wisconsin schools, our Wisconsin families and our kids who are in special education around the state,” Erpenbach said.

Republicans have the votes to approve the plan with no Democratic support.

The Republican plan would increase per-pupil funding by $200 the first year and $204 the second, paid for with a mixture of categorical aids and revenue limits. Olsen said the goal was to keep property tax increases at no more than 1% each year. Under the Evers budget, property taxes were projected to go up about 2% each year.

The GOP plan also increases funding for mental health services and revenue limits for low-spending districts.

Olsen defended the $500 million total, even though it falls $900 million short of what Evers wanted. Evers was calling for a 10% total increase and a reworking of the state aid formula for schools, another idea Republicans were rejecting.

“I think it’s just right because if you look at the money we have to spend in the budget, this is the lion’s share,” he said. “I would love to (spend $1.4 billion), but I know we’re not going to be cause we can’t. This is the best we could do.”

The Republican proposal is a “mixed bag,” said Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“The typical school district will find a lot of good things in this budget, but that’s not to say that every district will be in great shape,” he said.

The budget committee is working to reshape Evers’ budget, including education funding, before sending the revised plan to the full Legislature for approval. Evers has powerful line-item veto authority to rework the plan and has held out the possibility of vetoing the entire budget.

Education funding is the single largest item of state spending in the budget, currently taking up about a third of all money allocated. Reaching agreement on how much to spend there will help lawmakers navigate the rest of the budget and how much money is available to spend on areas like transportation and health care.

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