Fewer computers in classrooms, a slashed athletic budget and frozen salaries for nonunion workers and administrators. They’re just a few examples of how the Madison School District is coping with recent state aid cuts, which are expected to top $6 million this year.

And the district is far from alone. Middleton, Waupun, Westfield, Thorp, Brodhead, Adams-Friendship — the list goes on and on. Districts have cut salaries, laid off teachers and left positions unfilled. Dozens of rural elementary schools have closed.

Years of such cuts have led to repeated calls for an overhaul of how Wisconsin pays for public education.

But while the top candidates for governor have been busy debating how to fix the state’s struggling economy, create jobs and trim government spending, they have said little about how they plan to pay for public schools.

On one side are the major Republican candidates, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann. Both criticize state mandates that dictate how districts spend money, and they support restoring de facto limits on teacher raises as a way to stem costs and improve education.

On the other side is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the major Democratic candidate, who opposes salary limits and favors increased collaboration between school districts to save money.

However, none of the leading candidates has proposed a substantial overhaul of the state’s funding formula, despite the fact that most education experts say something needs to be done — and soon.

“It’s only a matter of time before this system starts to fail,” said John Forester, director of government relations for the School Administrators Alliance. “This is a recipe for bankruptcy.”

Have politicians given up?

Wisconsin’s approach to funding schools relies on a confusing and frequently misunderstood formula under which the state picks up the bulk of costs while capping how much districts can collect in state aid and local property taxes combined.

Districts have complained the caps, which are based largely on the number of students a district has, have not kept pace with expenses. In recent years, the state has reduced its share of aid to schools from two-thirds of total costs to slightly less than that, forcing districts to choose between two unpopular options: Cutting programs and services or raising property taxes.

Tom Beebe, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, said the problem has gotten so bad most politicians have given up trying to solve it.

Still, education remains the largest single expense in the state budget, accounting for about 40 cents of every dollar the state spends out of its general fund. So the recent revelation that the state faces a $2.5 billion deficit in its next budget means even deeper cuts to schools could be in store.

In light of the state’s daunting fiscal problems, none of the top candidates for governor is promising to reinstate the two-thirds state funding commitment, which was repealed in 2003.

While he said he supports that level of state funding in principle, Walker said “the multibillion dollar hole left by Gov. (Jim) Doyle” makes it difficult to maintain in the upcoming budget.

Neumann said such a decision “has to be made in conjunction with the overall budget and spending levels.”

Barrett said, if elected, he would work to bring up the state’s commitment to school funding despite budget challenges, saying he would cut more than $1 billion in state spending in other areas.

Agreement on revenue caps

Revenue caps were imposed in the 1990s to slow property tax increases. Districts can exceed them, but only by asking voters to pass a referendum to raise their taxes. Not surprisingly, many referendums have failed.

“Seventeen years of revenue caps have seriously eroded Wisconsin schools’ ability to provide quality education,” said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.

None of the candidates support lifting the caps, however.

“This is the absolute worst time to think about raising taxes on families, senior citizens, farmers and other small businesses owners,” Walker said. “We need to do more to help rural districts but higher property taxes is not the answer.”

Barrett agreed, saying only voters in local school districts should decide whether they want to voluntarily raise the limits through referendums.

Neumann said he wants to see the limits tightened.

“But any tightening needs to come with a reduction of the bureaucratic red tape and control of the education system” by the state, he added.

Controlling teacher pay

A third component of the state’s approach to school funding, a teacher pay provision known as the “qualified economic offer,” or QEO, was repealed last year. The QEO allowed school districts to avoid arbitration in contract negotiations if they offered teachers at least a 3.8 percent increase in pay and benefits — effectively capping teacher pay increases at that amount.

Both Republican candidates are in favor of reinstating the QEO, saying it gives local districts more control of their finances.

Walker accused Doyle, a Democrat, of pandering to teachers unions by fighting to remove the QEO while leaving the revenue caps in place to keep from facing voter anger over higher property taxes. The result, Walker said, is a dishonest system.

“They should both be in place or both be removed,” he said.

Barrett is against bringing the pay provision back.

“School costs rose during the entire time QEOs were in effect,” he said. “I believe the QEO is a strike against local control and we are better off without it.”

Challenge to protect schools

Despite the tough choices facing public schools, Doyle said he’s proud of his education record over the past eight years. He pointed to the expansion of 4-year-old kindergarten and efforts to reduce class sizes and assist rural schools. And Doyle said during his tenure he repeatedly fought off proposed GOP cuts that would have resulted in larger class sizes, teacher layoffs, and deep cuts to art, music and athletic programs.

“The real challenge for the next governor is going to be, how do you protect education in very difficult times?” Doyle said.

But many school systems are facing the very problems Doyle sought to avoid. With federal stimulus aid aimed at helping states fund schools ending in the 2011-12 school year — and no guarantee Wisconsin will receive any competitive grants under the federal Race to the Top program — the problem only looks to get worse.

“We’re OK for next year, but it’s the year after that we could be in trouble,” said Thorp School District Administrator James Montgomery, whose system has cut hours, positions and classes to deal with its reduced state funding. “I have nightmares over that one.”

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Where the major candidates for governor stand on public education:

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, co-chairman of a nonprofit organization managing charter-style schools, Republican

• Link teacher pay to student performance, using standardized tests to gauge progress.

• Increase local control by axing state budget and staff mandates such as financial reporting requirements.

• Recruit more educators from the private sector by eliminating state-mandated teacher and administrator certification. “Right now, you could have a Rembrandt who wanted to teach art, and they wouldn’t let you,” he said.

• Keep revenue caps in place, or tighten them, and reinstate the qualified economic offer, or QEO.

• Expand private school choice, such as home schooling, charter and virtual schools.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, Republican

• Link teacher pay to student performance.

• Allow some form of alternative licensing for teacher certification. Walker does not want to do away with certification, but would like to see a method for recruiting private sector professionals.

• Allow school districts to opt into the state health care plan, which he says would save local districts $68 million a year. Currently, the state requires school districts to negotiate the insurance carrier as part of teacher contract talks. Walker said he wants to free up the districts to just negotiate benefit levels, so they can shop for the best deal.

• Use technology to consolidate services, such as using video to allow specialty teachers to work with students in multiple districts.

• Keep revenue caps in place and reinstate the QEO.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Democrat

• Use student performance as one method of measuring educators’ success but include other methods in the process.

• Consolidate administrative services to save money.

• Keep revenue caps, but don’t reinstate the QEO, which he called “a strike against local control.”

• Work to bring up the level of state aid, which previously stood at two-thirds of public school costs.

• Make sure student poverty is taken into account in the school funding formula. “Poverty is one of the obstacles that students face to getting the best education possible, and we need an education policy that accounts for poverty as well as other challenges,” he said.