Parents, teachers, and concerned citizens from all over Wisconsin will walk 60 miles to Madison beginning tomorrow. They’ll be demonstrating all weekend to protest the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature’s state education budget and to support Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ effort to overcome years of Scott Walker’s budget cuts to the state’s public schools.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Annysa Johnson reports: “Public school advocates from across the state will embark on a 60-mile march to Madison… hoping to persuade Republican lawmakers to boost funding for K-12 education…. The goal, organizers say, is for the lawmakers to reinstate key components of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ education budget, particularly his nearly $600 million boost to cover special education costs, $58 million more for mental health services, and $40 million more for bilingual-bicultural programs.”
Gov. Evers, formerly Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, knows about the needs of public schools. After the Legislature—still dominated by Walker’s kind of small government Republicans—rejected his budget proposal and countered with less investment in what Evers believes are necessary programs, the new Governor has repeated his demands for more money, particularly to help school districts serve disabled children in special education and support school districts serving concentration of children living in poverty.
In late May, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Molly Beck reported: “The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted… to put in the next state budget a $500 million increase in funding for schools that provides $97 million in new funding to help cover schools’ special education costs… But Evers made clear the Republican plan for special education funding wasn’t adequate. ‘We’ve had school districts across the state going to referendum for many, many years now, and passing referenda because the state hasn’t done their share… I don’t believe that what is proposed… deals with the issue of students with disabilities in more comprehensive way… I don’t think it’s enough.'”
Beck explains in more detail: “(Luther) Olsen, vice chairman of the budget committee, said the package would raise the percentage of special education costs the state covers from 25% to 26% for the current school year and to 30% in 2020. Evers, the former state schools superintendent, proposed raising the reimbursement rate to 60%—which would cost $600 million. Either would be the first increase in state funding for special education in more than a decade… A recent study by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum showed school districts across the state spent more than $1 billion in district funds to cover special education costs that otherwise would have been spent district-wide.”
Another of Evers’ priorities, a significant increase for school districts which serve concentrations of children in poverty, was not part of the legislators’ budget as of June 17, when Molly Beck updated the details of the Legislature’s education budget negotiations: “Removed from Evers’ K-12 plan—built largely off proposals he made as state schools superintendent—was a plan to overhaul the state’s education funding formula to provide money to schools with high numbers of students who live in poverty. Evers wanted to increase funding for schools by $1.4 billion, which included a $600 million increase in funding for school districts’ special education costs. Republican lawmakers also removed (Evers’) proposal to freeze enrollment in the state’s private voucher school systems.”
A Wisconsin Education Association Council update on June 7, 2019 explains the Republican Legislature’s determination to continue supporting school privatization with ample funding for the state’s large voucher program, which uses tax dollars to pay students’ tuition at religious schools: “Analysis of the education budget passed through the Joint Finance Committee… shows that students enrolled in private voucher schools would again receive higher per-pupil payments than public school students. Public schools would be capped at increasing per-pupil spending by approximately $200 in 2019-20 and $204 in 2020-21, while payments for voucher school tuition would increase by an estimated $229 in the first year of the budget, and $275 in the second year.”
In his important book, The One Percent Solution, about the 2010 Red-Wave election that flipped so many states to far-right, anti-government Republican leadership, political economist Gordon Lafer describes Scott Walker’s Wisconsin as emblematic of the anti-tax, anti-public services agenda. Lafer explains: “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda…. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)
Lafer describes exactly how this has all played out in Wisconsin: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)
It is worth examining carefully what Wisconsin’s new Gov. Evers is prioritizing as a way to challenge the narrative about public spending. His budgetary priorities emphasize what are among every public school district’s most expensive and essential programming challenges—addressing the needs of very poor children and educating children with disabilities. Traditionally it has also been the role of state governments (with the help of targeted federal Title I and IDEA funding) to equalize and compensate for the fiscal incapacity of property-poor local school districts to serve these populations. And when the state fails to do its part to fund mandated public school services, local school districts must raise their own taxes if their residents can afford it or cut other essential services. Tax cuts and the reduced services that inevitably follow are one of the reasons we have been watching school teachers across the country on strike this year to protest impossibly large class sizes and the layoffs of nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.
It is refreshing to watch Gov. Evers be strategic as he redefines Wisconsin’s challenges. And it is wonderful that parents, teachers and public school supporters have organized to stand with their new governor to demand that Wisconsin stop starving its public schools. The budget debate in Wisconsin won’t end until the Legislature produces a budget Gov. Evers believes he can sign.
To keep up the pressure, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is organizing across the state for this weekend’s 60 Mile Walk to Madison. Executive director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains the urgency behind the group’s effort to support Gov. Tony Evers as he redefines the public’s obligation to invest in the state’s system of public education: “We’re not above begging… We have been on our knees, begging for our kids for the past 10 years, but we’re sick of begging for crumbs, and we’re here to demand more than that this time around.”