April 11, 2014
Public education is the cornerstone on which the success of our state is built.
Support for public education has a long and proud tradition. However, the future of public education in our state is threatened.
Over the past three years, our local schools have faced drastic funding cuts, fewer educational opportunities, and reductions in teachers and staff. Not only did schools statewide endure a historic budget cut of $1.6 billion in the 2011-2012 state budget, but many schools are faring even worse after passage of the 2013-15 budget. In fact, 210 of Wisconsin’s 424 school districts, or about 50, received less general aid in the current school year than they did in the previous one.
More and more school districts are forced to referenda asking property taxpayers to make up for the loss of state aid. Just this month at least 26 rural school districts had referenda to simply sustain current operations and educational opportunities for students.
The Legislature could have made different choices. For the past two state budget cycles, I wrote an alternative budget that used the same revenues used by the Governor and Legislators. By making different spending choices, I was able to increase state aid to schools – including increased funding for categorical aids. Last year, my alternative budget completely funded the State Superintendent’s “Fair Funding for Our Future” proposal which would overhaul our public school funding formula.
The proposal would ensure that schools receive a fair distribution of general school funds. It took into account the impact of poverty and the unique pressures on rural school districts, such as transportation costs. And the proposal established predictable growth in state aid by restoring the state’s two-thirds commitment to help ensure property taxpayers are not overburdened with the cost of their local schools.
Unfortunately, I was not able to convince a majority of my colleagues to accept my alternative budget. So I joined several of my democratic colleagues and introduced the “Fair Funding for Our Future” plan as a separate bill.
Those of us representing rural school districts recognize the budget surplus offered the Legislature an opportunity to provide some immediate financial resources for our schools. We sought support from our colleagues for bills to increase Special Needs and Sparsity aid and to expand the number of schools eligible for Sparsity aid. This categorical aid provides school districts very important flexibility to use the dollars where they are critically needed. Representative Mandy Wright and I also proposed a student loan forgiveness program for teachers in rural districts to help in recruiting and retaining staff.
Unfortunately, these bills did not receive even a public hearing.
School leaders asked the Legislature for flexibility in the school calendar to help make effective and efficient use of their tight budgets. I voted for a bill that eliminates the 180 school day requirement while keeping intact the minimum hours of instructional time required. This change gives school leaders the ability to innovate the instructional calendar to meet the unique needs of the school district and the students they serve
While working on this bill I learned Wisconsin has the greatest number of instruction hours required for high school students. This may contribute to why Wisconsin students consistently score better on the ACT than students from nearly all other states.
With the help of public education leaders, advocates and citizens concerned about the future of public education, we were able to pass legislation that requires private, taxpayer-funded voucher school to participate in the same report card system used to measure public schools. It is critical for taxpayers to know how students funded with tax dollars are doing regardless of the type of school they attend.
As a member of the Senate Education Committee I pushed back on legislation that would have allowed for unfettered expansion of independent charter schools and a bill that would have limited the options for special needs students.
In a show of incredible unity, over 100 school superintendents traveled to Madison to oppose legislation that would have politicized development of academic standards in Wisconsin. They expressed their support for the Common Core academic standards. In the end, the Legislature left authority with local school boards to modify academic standards to best meet the needs of their students.
Wisconsin public schools are among the best in the nation. We are where we are now because of investments made by prior generations. In the last four years I’ve witnessed a disturbing trend to starve public education and shift resources to privately run schools. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect public education and preserve our neighborhood schools – the heart of our communities.
I appreciate your strong support of public education and look forward to continuing our work to ensure all children receive a quality education regardless of where they live.