School bus

Students at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison head toward their buses. 

John Hart - Wisconsin State Journal

Ready or not, summer has come to a close and all of our kids are heading back to their studies. The new school year brings new challenges: new classrooms to navigate, new subjects to conquer, and new teachers to navigate them through it all. This year brings an additional challenge: Due to the delay by the Republican majority on Wisconsin’s state budget, none of our public schools has their resources set.

Two months past the due date, the Joint Finance committee finally took up the education budget and they voted to shortchange our kids once again. The delay also means school aid payments are delayed until Gov. Walker gets around to signing and/or vetoing their final budget.

Our kids deserve better. A Democratic alternative was put forward that promotes quality education regardless of zip code and ensures the continued strength of our local neighborhood schools. By increasing education spending by $729 million over two years and lowering property taxes by $25 million, Democrats proposed a solid step toward ensuring bright futures for our kids. We believe listening to families, employers, and education professionals is necessary to finding the common-sense solutions that reflect our Wisconsin values and heritage.

Instead, if the current budget moves forward as projected, students will again have to wait to see all the funds restored from the largest cut to education in state history. This “values deficit” has already had an impact. For the first time in modern history, Wisconsin has dropped below the national average for per-child funding. Rejecting our responsibility and constitutional commitment as a state to adequately fund our local schools to allow them to provide a quality education is a dangerous betrayal of a generational promise that has brought the opportunity for prosperity to our state.

Here in Wisconsin, we used to take care of one another and protect our local communities the best we could. Districts should not be forced to go to local referendum on an annual basis, or rely on short-term borrowing, just to fill in the state funding gap. But since 2011, that’s what’s happened. Over 40 percent of our school districts have had to go to their neighbors to close the funding gap through referendum. Wisconsinites value education and our children and so 70 percent of these referendums to make up the gap have passed, but this will only get us so far.

Compounding the self-created funding crisis (we’re not broke — Walker has raised spending levels to the highest in state history), taxpayers are also being forced to fund the continued expansion of unaccountable private voucher schools. Republicans sitting on the budget-writing committee chose to again increase the income eligibility for the statewide voucher program. This means less money going to our neighborhood schools as even more cash is funneled away to private, unaccountable institutions. These transactions are all done under the taxpayer’s nose without transparency or input by local units of government. This is how the unaccountable voucher system has grown year-after-year: through provisions slipped into the budget at the urging of special interest lobbyists at the same time funds get pulled away from rural and urban public school kids.

We can do better than cleaning up the mess served us by state leaders. We can demand a state budget that reflects our values so our kids don’t have to face any extra challenges to getting a great education this coming year.

Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat, represents District 7 in the Wisconsin Senate.

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