Public Schools Rally

Public school advocates rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday. PHOTO BY JESSIE OPOIEN

Wisconsin Democrats in the state Legislature are proposing two bills to adjust state education aid in response to a budget they say prioritizes private schools at the expense of public ones.

The bills, introduced by Sens. Chris Larson and Nikiya Harris Dodd and Reps. Mandela Barnes and Daniel Riemer — all Milwaukee Democrats — would allow school boards to increase their levy limits to keep up with inflation and would increase school districts' reimbursement rates for special education to 33 percent. The bills are currently being circulated for co-sponsorship.

Public school advocates gathered at the state Capitol on Tuesday to ask legislators to provide "full and fair funding" for public schools in the state budget. 

"I have never seen the lack of support for our public schools in Wisconsin as shown in this budget," said David Polashek, superintendent of the Oconto Falls School District.

Polashek is retiring after 45 years in public education, 37 of which were spent as a school superintendent in Wisconsin. 

Polashek and Jill Gaskell, a member of the Pecatonica area school board, both spoke of budget struggles in their districts. Polashek said not every teacher who leaves or retires will be replaced, due to insufficient funds, and Gaskell said last year the Pecatonica school district had to transfer 1 percent of its general education fund to cover special education costs.

"In Wisconsin, it does matter where you go to school. Education is not equal in our state," Gaskell said. "The expansion of the private school voucher program included in this budget will hurt rural districts like ours that don't even have private voucher schools even more, as we begin to see hundreds of millions of tax dollars taken off the top and the allotment for public schools gets smaller and smaller."

Joanne Juhnke, policy director at Wisconsin Family Ties, decried the inclusion of special needs vouchers in the state budget. Her daughter has disabilities including autism and epilepsy. Juhnke said special needs advocates are strongly opposed to the vouchers, which they say will siphon resources from public schools and send them to private schools that aren't subject to the same federal guidelines. 

She noted that Wisconsin's current special education reimbursement rate is 26 percent, and said raising that to 33 percent would provide "much needed relief" for school districts.

"We have told you that we want education experts, not politicians, making policy decisions. We have told you that we do not want policy items in the budget, especially ones slipped in the dark of night with no public hearing," said Kathryn Carley, mother of a fourth grade student at Aldo Leopold Community School in Green Bay. "So why are lawmakers not listening to parents? And who is it they are listening to?"

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The group cited figures from the state Department of Public Instruction showing that the percentage of the state budget spend on K-12 education is at a 20-year low. The state's reimbursement rates for special education have fallen over the last two decades, too. 

To fund education, advocates suggested stopping the expansion of Gov. Scott Walker's property tax cuts, capping a tax credit for manufacturers and accepting the federal Medicaid expansion. They estimated those moves would add up to $692 million in additional revenue, $337 million of which they said could be directed to K-12 education. 

Meanwhile, voucher advocates accused the group of money-grabbing.

"Not surprisingly, a group of people directly and indirectly connected to the public education funding stream gathered today to ask for more money," said School Choice Wisconsin president Jim Bender in a statement. "Their request was simple: more money, less competition."

Under a Republican motion passed by the Joint Finance Committee, public schools would retain a $127 million cut proposed in the governor's budget for the 2015-16 school year. The following year, they would receive about $70 million more than Walker proposed. 

Republican lawmakers have said throughout the budgeting process that funding K-12 education is a priority for them, but Democrats say the gradual expansion of the statewide voucher program included in the proposal negates any good done by the measure.

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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.