Freezing public school spending in Wisconsin would be a mistake, given previous cuts and rising costs.
That’s the most glaring problem with Gov. Scott Walker’s two-year, $68 billion state budget proposal.
The Republican governor also stalls his considerable progress toward an honest and truly balanced budget. Having slain a giant budget gap two years ago, Walker shouldn’t be backtracking even a bit.
The Legislature has some fixing to do.
Yet some of Walker’s priorities are strong, including:
• His support — and flexibility — for higher education. Wisconsin would go back to spending more on universities than prisons, and workforce development would get a boost. Technical colleges would get new money linked to graduation rates, job placement and training workers in high-demand fields.
• A special fund to lure more investment capital for young and innovative companies. The fund is an important step for encouraging job and income growth for workers across Wisconsin.
• More autonomy for public charter schools. These schools are supposed to try new things. So giving them more freedom makes sense, as long as local school boards or some other public entity can stop charters if they’re not working after typically five years.
Public charter schools are different than private and religious voucher schools, which need more accountability to taxpayers before any expansion. Walker said last week he would seek legislation requiring all schools that receive public dollars to be graded under the state’s new report card system.
That’s a good start. Money also should be tied to performance for voucher schools if that’s how public schools are going to be treated.
Overall, the governor has proposed a small increase in state aid to public schools. The catch is the new money is dedicated to holding down property taxes, rather than helping education.
This follows two years of deep cuts in state aid. To offset much of the reduction, many school districts required teachers and other employees to pay more toward their health and pension benefits.
Walker’s strict limits on collective bargaining, while controversial, also gave school districts more freedom to change health insurance providers.
But those savings have been tapped by most districts. And school spending can’t be frozen forever.
The Legislature should allow schools some reasonable growth — something Sens. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, and Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, are proposing — even if that threatens plans to trim income taxes.
One of Walker’s biggest accomplishments over the last two years was the elimination of a stubborn budget gap, called the “structural deficit,” that set up future state budgets for shortfalls.
But the governor’s latest budget request is projected to create a $188 million hole in two years. The governor and Legislature should remember how much better it feels to budget with a small surplus than it does to lurch from shortfall to shortfall.
Good budgeting practices should expand further, not shrink.