Wisconsin education leaders have been calling the push to restore K-12 funding cut from the state budget a mixed bag — good that it provides more money for schools but nothing over which to take a victory lap.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers recently warned that districts would need to make cuts because of inflation if state funding wasn't increased.
The Joint Finance Committee last week filled in the $127 million cut to per-pupil aid next year that was proposed in Gov. Scott Walker's budget and added $100 per pupil in the following year.
Evers' concerns over the lack of a funding increase had to be considered alongside the funding concerns for other groups in the budget process, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, said in a TV interview broadcast Sunday on "UpFront with Mike Gousha."
Thiesfeldt, a former teacher who chairs the Assembly's education committee, said he sees education as a primary driver of the state's economy.
"But not everybody necessarily feels that way," he said. "There are a lot of other people who will put education right along Medicaid, put it right alongside transportation. All of those are important things for driving our economy in Wisconsin.
"I personally think education is the biggest, but as a legislator you've got to weigh all of those interests. This is the best that we could do for that. It certainly is, in my opinion, a whole lot better than what we were facing had we not restored that money."
Thiesfeldt said he didn't agree with public educators' claims that they are under assault by Republican legislators who they say are creating separate state funded education systems through expansion of a voucher program.
"I wouldn't say they're under assault. I would say they're being challenged," Thiesfeldt told host Mike Gousha. "They're being challenged to improve themselves. They're being challenged to move toward 21st century education. And I believe they have, they've been answering that challenge. ...
"Part of the reason for the answering of that challenge has been that there is some real competition that they're facing in terms of charter schools and choice schools. That does two things, really. It not only challenges the public schools to step up their game, but it also gives parents opportunities that they didn't have before to be able to get their children to go to schools that they think they are best suited for."
Why, Gousha then asked, if public schools are doing well, did the Legislature need to expand the voucher program for private and religious schools?
"You talk to one person and you talk to another person and you hear different things about how well Wisconsin schools are doing," Thiesfeldt said. "I think overall they are doing well. But education isn't something where you can ever just stand still. You always need to keep moving forward. You always need to keep making progress.
"Some of the most successful schools in the state are not just public schools, but they're also private schools. And some of those private schools are in the choice program. But I believe that if some of these private schools are good for education in Wisconsin, we should be promoting them as being worthy of taxpayer support as well. Why should families who cannot afford to go to those schools who know that those schools are going to be good for their children, why are they not worthy of taxpayer support for going there?"
The Joint Finance Committee last week approved a plan to remove the 1,000-student cap on the statewide voucher program, replacing it with a limit of 1 percent of a school district's students.