Joint Finance co-chairs 8-28
PHOTO BY JESSIE OPOIEN

Lawmakers on the Wisconsin Legislature's budget-writing committee voted Monday to approve the largest funding boost to Wisconsin's K-12 schools since before Gov. Scott Walker took office.

Walker's budget proposal included $649 million in new education spending, including an increase in per-pupil aid of $200 in the 2017-18 school year and $204 in the following year.

The measure Republican lawmakers approved on a party-line vote brings that boost down to $639 million, by spending less than what Walker proposed on rural schools and high-performing Milwaukee schools. 

This spending plan comes after Walker proposed a $127 million cut to K-12 funding in his 2015-17 budget, which lawmakers reversed. The previous budget kept funding for public schools flat, and his first budget included a $782 million cut.

Under the plan approved on Monday, school districts that spend less than most others could gradually raise their revenue limits from $9,100 per pupil up to $9,800 per pupil over the course of several years. 

Assembly Republicans introduced a proposal in June to allow those districts to spend more and ultimately persuaded their Senate colleagues to take action in this budget period, said Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

"We need to be able to give our schools the same opportunity and our kids the same opportunity regardless of their zip code," said Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.

Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said he understands the intent of that change, but by reducing the amount of aid to rural districts proposed by the governor in favor of assisting low-spending districts, schools in his Senate district will receive $2.2 million less in aid than they expected. 

The governor's schools funding proposal has been widely praised by educators and administrators. Department of Public Instruction superintendent Tony Evers, a Democrat who is seeking to challenge Walker in 2018, applauded the plan as a "pro-kid budget" when it was introduced. Evers said last week the funding boost is an "anomaly" under Walker and it "hardly gets us back to where we started from."

With the budget now two months past due, some schools have complained they have to hold off on making hiring decisions until they know what kind of funding they'll receive from the state.

The new fiscal year began on July 1, but the state will continue to operate under the previous budget's funding levels until a new one is passed.

Nygren dismissed the complaints from schools as "smoke and mirrors" last week, arguing that districts have previously resisted changes to Walker's proposed budget because they said they were relying on the funding levels he offered.

Democrats rejected Republicans' claims that the GOP proposal makes a "historic investment" in schools, noting that, adjusted for inflation, state aid for schools is lower than it was more than 10 years ago.

"That, to me, says we’ve fallen far behind," said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.

Schools, students and teachers have been "under attack" under Walker and the GOP legislative majority, said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

Republicans on the committee took umbrage at Democrats' comments, arguing Democrats created the budget situation that led Republicans to pursue Walker's signature Act 10 legislation, which effectively eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees.

Darling raised her voice at one point, arguing that Democratic policies before Act 10 had "put the teachers in the back room and put the unions at the table."

"Come on," Darling said. "We value teachers. I'm sick of this victimizing teachers. Let's agree that education is all of our priority." 

In the Republican proposal approved on Monday, lawmakers modified a requirement included in Walker's 2017-19 spending plan that would have made some funding contingent on teachers paying at least 12 percent of their health care costs, in compliance with Act 10. Under the new proposal, schools will monitor their compliance, but it will not be a condition of the funding they receive. 

The committee also voted to raise the income limits for the statewide private voucher program — which operates outside of the programs in Milwaukee and Racine — from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 220 percent. Under the new requirements, a family of four making $53,826 per year could receive a voucher. The Milwaukee and Racine programs will continue to operate at their current limit of 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

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While Democrats criticized any expansion of the voucher program, Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, said she was disappointed the measure didn't expand eligibility further and lift enrollment caps. 

Also included in the lawmakers' K-12 package are two efforts designed to alleviate shortages of teachers and administrators throughout the state.

One measure would allow people to take online classes to earn teacher certification in high-need subjects like technology, math, engineering and science. Another would offer loans for people seeking additional education and training to become principals or other education administrators.

Lawmakers also approved a measure proposed in Walker's budget to eliminate expiration dates for teachers' licenses following a three-year provisional period.

The proposal includes $3.2 million for community and school mental health collaboration grants, and $9.2 million to provide electronic computing devices or software to high school freshman. The grant would allocate up to $125 per ninth grade student.

It also offers resources for school districts that elect to consolidate or share some services. Districts that completely consolidate would be eligible for aid equal to $150 per student for five years after the consolidation, gradually tapering off in the following years. Districts that choose to share a grade could receive $150 per student enrolled in that grade for four years, which would taper off in the fifth year. The package also sets aside $2 million for a pilot program to provide aid to districts that share some administrative services.

Also under the plan, districts could only hold referendums during already-scheduled election days or on the second Tuesday of November in odd-numbered years, with allowances made for special circumstances, such as increased costs resulting from a natural disaster.

"Thanks to the members of the Joint Finance Committee for supporting the education portion of my budget," Walker said in a statement. "Once signed, this budget will include more actual dollars for K-12 education than ever before in our history."

Democrats introduced their own proposal, which would implement a funding formula promoted for years by Evers. The Democrats' proposal would have increased schools spending by about $730 million than what Walker proposed.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.