With Tony Evers’ New Budget, Wisconsin Begins Long Journey to Shed Scott Walker’s Legacy

In Gordon Lafer’s 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, in the first chapter entitled  “Wisconsin and Beyond: Dismantling the Government,” Lafer makes Wisconsin the emblem of what happened in the 2010 election, as corporate lobbies, the Tea Party, and the collapse of state revenue following the Great Recession converged to fuel a Red-state wave that took over state governments:

“Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or, where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.  All of this—deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensation and the dramatic rollback of public services—was forcefully championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-45)

In his fine book, Lafer describes a wave of tax cuts that followed the 2010 election, plus anti-teachers’ union battles and efforts to expand school privatization through enabling charter schools or adding state voucher (and neo-voucher tuition tax credits or education savings accounts).  Lafer points to public schools as one of the institutions targeted by the corporate reformers from state to state:  “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority. As a result, in recent years there has been more legislation adopted related to education than to any other area of social or economic activity. From 2011 to 2015, at least eight states passed laws limiting the union rights of schoolteachers; nine states increased the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation; seventeen expanded online instruction; and twenty-nine passed laws encouraging the privatization of education through vouchers or charter schools. This unprecedented rush of legislation is not a response to (a) sudden educational crisis; American students’ reading and math scores have remained largely unchanged for forty years. Rather, it represents long-held ambitions that became politically possible following Citizens United, project RedMap, and the Great Recession-induced fiscal crisis.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

For Gordon Lafer, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin epitomized the corporate takeover of state government. As we enter July of 2019, almost a decade later, Wisconsin has been swept by a significant pushback against the corporate agenda. Walker is now gone, and Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers just signed his first budget. Evers, who served Wisconsin as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction from 2011 until he was elected governor in November, 2018, promised to undo Scott Walker’s record on public education.

It is becoming clear in Wisconsin and many other states, however, that overcoming the corporate takeover of state government and the attack on public education will be neither quick nor easy. Wisconsin’s new Governor Evers is a Democrat, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature are dominated by large Republican majorities.  At the end of June, the members of Wisconsin’s legislature presented Evers with a budget reflecting Governor Walker’s—not Governor Evers’—priorities.

Eventually, Evers signed the budget presented to him last week by the Wisconsin Legislature, but he said he had considered vetoing the whole thing.  Finally he used what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel identifies as, “the strongest veto powers in the country. This stems from a 1930 state constitutional amendment granting Wisconsin governors partial veto authority that allows the governor to strike individual words and numbers from legislation that appropriates money. That lets governors surgically remove words here and there to get results that are at odds with what legislators wanted.”

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Laurel White explains: “Gov. Tony Evers used his veto pen Wednesday to boost K-12 education funding in Wisconsin by about $65 million in the next two-year state budget. The change was one of 78 partial vetoes Evers made to the $82 billion budget approved last week by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature… The boost to education funding means the state will increase K-12 education spending by about $570 million over the next two years.  The budget approved by the Legislature had already slated a roughly $500 million increase. Evers accomplished the spending bump by increasing per-pupil aid in Wisconsin by $64 per student in each of the next two years… However, the governor also eliminated an $18 million technology grant program within the K-12 budget.  In his veto message, the governor said the funds ‘could more effectively be spent on programs that close achievement gaps.’  His increase and cut combined result in a net increase of about $65 million to K-12 schools from his veto pen.  Even with that $65 million boost, the $570 million schools spending increase is still dramatically less than the $1.4 billion bump he proposed earlier this year.”

For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Annysa Johnson quotes Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, expressing disappointment in the budget Evers signed into law: “The increases are appreciated.  But they’re modest at best…  And they do nothing to move the needle on the radical revisioning of our education crisis that the (Legislature’s) Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding called for a year ago.”  Bourenane represents an encouraging statewide push by parents, teachers, and community advocates for the rejection of Walker’s education policies.

In his 2017 book, Gordon Lafer reminds us just how deeply Scott Walker cut taxes and, subsequently education funding: “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)

Evers has persisted throughout the budget debate, however, in working to change the narrative—to define again and again what sort of state investments will provide essential support for the most vulnerable children and their schools. He did so again in his explanation of his use of Wisconsin’s veto powers to adjust the Legislature’s budgetary priorities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s, Johnson quotes Evers describing his reason for signing the budget, which even after his vetoes fails to fulfill his goals for the state’s public schools: “This is only a down payment on the progress we must make in the next biennial budget… There’s still more that we need to do. I will not stop fighting for our kids, meaningful investment in our schools and school finance reform.”

Johnson describes additional comments from Evers’ signing statement: “Despite its shortcomings, Evers touted the education budget as significant. In addition to the per-pupil aid, he said it: increases state special education funding by $95 million, the first increase since 2008-09; includes the first substantial increase in revenue limit authority in a decade, meaning districts can raise more money from state and local taxpayers; doubles state support for… mental health programs in schools; and provides nearly $330 million, the largest nominal dollar increase in state general aid since the 2005-07 biennium.”

Wisconsin’s army of public school supporters are justified in their disappointment that Evers was unable to undo Scott Walker’s damage this year. The most recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Wisconsin’s combined state and local funding for K-12 public schools remains 4 percent below what was being spent in 2008 before the Great Recession. But while Evers has persistently worked to frame a new narrative about the public’s responsibility to lift educational opportunity for the state’s most vulnerable children, Evers and his supporters will have to keep up the pressure for considerably longer than this year.


Wisconsin Voucher Program: Exacerbates Inequity by Stealing from Local School District Budgets

A new study for the National Education Policy Center by Ellie Bruecker of the University of Wisconsin warns that Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program, as it grows, will increasingly exacerbate fiscal inequity across the state’s public school districts.

In the 2015-2017 state budget bill, Wisconsin expanded the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program statewide school vouchers by eliminating a 2,000 student statewide cap and sunsetting a district-by-district student participation cap. The new law provides that the participation cap for any district’s students will increase one percent a year until 2026-2027, after which the district cap will disappear altogether.

At the same time Wisconsin changed the way the state funds vouchers. While, before 2015, statewide vouchers were funded by the state through its General Purpose Revenue fund, the 2015 budget bill began counting voucher students as part of the overall enrollment of their local school district and deducting money from the school district’s state’s formula aid to pay for the vouchers:

“The bulk of state aid allocated to public school districts in Wisconsin is derived from a guaranteed tax base formula (equalization aid), which produces higher aid for districts with low property wealth and lower aid for districts with higher property wealth. To fund the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, this allocation of state equalization aid is reduced by the total cost of the vouchers for participating students in the district.  The bill also specifies that if a district’s voucher costs exceed the total allocation of equalization aid, the remaining payment would be deducted from other state aid—categorical aids, which are allocated for specific purposes such  as transportation costs, special education, or high poverty assistance.”

The expansion of Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program is  less likely to affect districts whose tax base is high and students are wealthy. Currently to qualify for a voucher, a student must live in a family at or below $44,955—185 percent of the federal poverty line. However, according to Bruecker, students with slightly higher income may soon become eligible: “Additionally, as of August 2017, Wisconsin Senate Republicans are considering increasing the income eligibility limit for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program from 185%… to 220% of the federal poverty level. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that if this change becomes law, it would reduce state aid to local school districts by an additional $16 million in the first school year in which it takes effect as more students participate in the program.”  Bruecker concludes that the new law will place “a greater burden on local taxpayers, particularly those who are already facing higher local tax rates that generate lower per-pupil spending than that in districts not negatively affected by the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.”

In Wisconsin the vast majority of students participating in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program were already enrolled in a private school before they received a voucher: “Nearly three out of every four students who participated in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in the 2016-17 school year were already private school students prior to enrolling in the program.”  The state has assumed “financial responsibility for educating additional students without providing a proportionate increase in the financial support it provides for those students… Because the per-pupil equalization aid does not cover the full cost of the voucher in nearly all districts, this funding mechanism decreases the state’s per-pupil investment, forcing local taxpayers to support a private school tuition program that they did not vote for nor that they control through their elected school boards.”

Bruecker recommends that Wisconsin maintain the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program’s income threshold at 185 percent of the federal poverty level, maintain the original district-level cap in any local school district at one percent of the district’s total enrollment, and fully fund the program, as in previous years, through the state’s General Revenue Fund.

She also warns other state’s to examine the inequity built into Wisconsin’s voucher program as a cautionary tale.