Thank you for you concerns about Wisconsin’s state budget. I am writing to provide an update on both K-12 and higher education changes in the recently passed budget.
Investing in education is the most important priority for our state’s future. Unfortunately, the investment Wisconsin makes in our education system has dropped from about 40% a decade ago to now less than 33% of the state’s general fund (where our tax dollars go).
In addition, the state loses $30 million a year in revenue due to a private school tax credit. A recent nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau report estimated the state spending on private schools, including the tax credit, has increased by over $1 billion since 2011.
The University of Wisconsin has also seen its share of tax dollars drop. Twenty years ago the state provided about 36% of all dollars to the UW. With the $250 million cut to the UW, state aid drops to a little more than 17% of all funds.
The UW makes up about 6% of the general fund budget. The amount the state spends on the UW as a percent of the general fund budget (6%) dropped below the percent the state spends on the Department of Corrections (7%). Clearly Wisconsin has to reconfigure spending priorities between corrections and higher education.
Since his election in 2010, Governor Walker has made decisions to cut funds to K-12 public schools and higher education. The governor, and legislators who voted for the budget, also shifted resources from public to private schools. The governor’s first budget made the largest cut to public education in Wisconsin history. His second budget continued the shift of state funds away from public education and into subsidies for privately run schools. I fear this trend indicates a slow dismantling of our local public schools in favor of privately run schools – many of which are run by firms headquartered outside of Wisconsin.
Many people think there was no other way to balance the state budget but through deep cuts to public schools. But this is just not true. Since the governor took office, the state has actually seen a substantial increase in revenue and not a decrease. The state gained a cumulative (year over year) increase in revenue of nearly $13 billion. In just the current budget, spending increased almost $3 billion over the last budget.
Despite these increasing resources, the cumulative cut to public schools since 2011 is nearly $1.7 billion. This figure does not include any estimates on how much schools will lose in state aid as a result of the recently expanded statewide “open enrollment” type of private school voucher program.
School districts across the state are struggling to keep up with ever-increasing costs while state aid shrinks. The cuts in state aid forced public school districts to drain savings, delay maintenance, cut salaries and reduce the number of staff. Leaving children with fewer resources. Many school boards sent resolutions to Legislators asking for an inflationary revenue increase in both years of the 2-year state budget.
Instead, Governor Walker’s 2015-17 state budget continued his trend of defunding public education and shifting funds to private voucher schools and independent charter schools. The budget cut general school aid to public schools in the first year of the two-year budget. As State Superintendent Tony Evers pointed out, “This left public schools with less state general aid than in 2010.”
In response to calls from parents, school boards, principals and superintendents to adequately fund our public schools, the Legislature’s budget writing committee did increase general school aid by $108 million in the second year of the budget. As signed into law, the budget also provides an $84 million increase in per-pupil aid- but it is available in only the second year of the budget. The budget also included a modest annual increase of $2.5 million in high-cost special education aid and $4 million for sparsity aid targeted toward small rural schools. For comparison, the entire K-12 annual budget is a little less than $5 billion. So these increases represent about only 2% – all in the second year of the budget.
Although modest, I was pleased sparsity aid was increased. Sparsity is a change in the funding formula I created in the first year I was in the Senate. This new aid was targeted at small schools with sparse population. In 2007, when I was successfully able to change the formula, I hoped to later add more money and more eligible schools. In 2009, my colleagues and I in the Rural Caucus successfully fought with urban Democrats to increase sparsity aid despite the dramatic drop in state revenue caused by the Great Recession. Now Republican leaders have also increased sparsity aid. It is rare these days to see the creation of a policy begun by one party and expanded by another.
This year I’ve heard from rural superintendents and school board members who share with me that sparsity aid has become the lifeline keeping rural schools open. I do join State Superintendent Tony Evers in calling for the full expansion of Sparsity Aid I envisioned in 2007. I would like to remove the cap on enrollment that prevents many sparse rural school districts from receiving this aid.
There is much I would have changed related to the education budget. During debate on the budget, I joined my Democratic colleagues in offering about 45 amendments including those to provide additional increases in state aid to public schools. Unfortunately, the Republican majority did not accept our amendments.
Instead, those voting for the new state budget opened the state’s checkbook in a big way for increasing subsidies to unaccountable private schools. The new budget allows for statewide expansion of the voucher program and eventually eliminates any enrollment cap on statewide taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. Despite twenty-five years of research in Milwaukee that shows no consistent increase in performance among private school students over public school students. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated total payments for statewide voucher expansion from 2015-16 to 2024-25 could run from an estimated $600 million to $800 million.
Expansion of the voucher program directly reduces state aid for public schools. Over the next two years, voucher subsidies will reduce state funding to public schools by an estimated $48 million. This does not include the increases spent in this budget to fund the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs and independent privately operated charter schools. It is important to remember this fact when you hear my colleagues who voted for the budget say they made public schools “whole” by increasing funding.
In addition to the impact of the syphoning state aid away from public schools, this budget freezes school districts’ revenue limits. This means any additional aid will not be available for the classroom. For school districts at their revenue limit, which includes the vast majority, without an increase in revenue limits any additional aid will not be available for the classroom and must be passed through to property taxpayers.
When cost go up and revenue limits do not, school boards sometimes have no choice but to turn to referenda just to continue educational programs and keep facilities operating. Communities are increasingly supporting school boards when asked to raise property taxes to pay for schools. According to The Wisconsin Taxpayer, 78% of referenda passed in April 2015 – a significantly higher rate than prior years.
Referenda, while providing critical funds, are a Band-Aid. They help schools get by for a few years, but do not solve the problem of overall decline in state aid and increases in costs. The solution is to change the state’s school funding formula to acknowledge schools have different cost structures. For the third budget in a row, State Superintendent Tony Evers has suggested changes in the formula in his Fair Funding for Our Future proposal. For the third budget in a row the governor did not include in his executive budget any of the dozens of changes the state superintendent of schools proposed.
For the third budget in a row, I created an alternative budget that included fully funded changes advanced by Superintendent Evers to fix our broken school funding formula. I want you to know that solutions to the real problems schools face are available. And, in the alternative budget I showed the math on how money is available. What Wisconsin’s children need now are the votes to pass the changes proposed by Superintendent Evers.
After the budget was signed into law, the Department of Public Instruction released estimates of state aid to public schools for the next year. Their estimates show more than half of all Wisconsin school districts will face a reduction in state aid.
Wisconsin’s trend of spending less per student comes at the same time school spending per student is increasing nationally. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, from 2005 to 2013, school spending per student from all revenue sources dropped 4.8% in Wisconsin while the national average of spending per student rose by 3.1%.
One significant way spending reductions are felt by students is an increase in crowded classrooms and fewer teachers. The Wisconsin Budget Project reported over the last eight years the number of teachers in Wisconsin public schools fell by nearly 3,000 even as school enrollment increased. They also reported on a troubling decline in experienced teachers. “In the 2013-14 school year, teaching staff of 39% of school districts had an average of 15 or more years of experience. That share has fallen dramatically since the 2004-05 school year, when 58% of school districts had a teaching staff with an average of 15 or more years or more of experience.”
Another disturbing trend is the drop in university education majors. Statistics from the United States Department of Education show a dramatic drop in the number of students learning to be teachers in Wisconsin. In 2011, 12,624 education majors were enrolled in all types of university-based education programs. By 2014, this number had dropped by almost a quarter to 9,563 university students.
Many people expressed concerns about the teacher licensure changes made in the budget. In an early proposal, people without a bachelor’s degree or even a high school diploma would’ve been allowed to teach some courses. This provision was changed after a great deal of public opposition. The final budget created a new teacher licensure for technical education in which a person without a bachelor’s degree could obtain a teacher license – depending on the person’s experience. In addition, the budget created a new licensure based on state reciprocity. Under the new law, an individual who was licensed in another state and taught for at least one year in that state could obtain a Wisconsin teaching license. Similarly, one could obtain an administrator’s license if that administrator was licensed in another state and served as an administrator in that state for at least a year. In both situations the person must have received a job offer from a Wisconsin school before he or she could apply for the license.
Many people who contacted me were deeply concerned about the cuts to the University of Wisconsin system. This budget slashed state funding for the University of Wisconsin system. The recent $250 million cut has far-reaching impacts on campuses statewide.
Officials at most campuses are looking at staff reductions. Several campuses offered early retirement to eligible staff. For example, UW-Eau Claire was hit with a 13.5% reduction in operating funds, which left a $12.3 million hole. To address the shortfall, UW-Eau Claire cut 130 positions through early retirement, attrition, and not renewing contracts that normally would be renewed. According to Chancellor Schmidt, the institution plans to cut about 158 positions in total, although he said the number could rise. Chancellor Schmidt is working with staff to find efficiencies within every department.
Other campuses in western Wisconsin are facing similar issues as UW-Eau Claire. Professor Kathleen Deery of UW-Stout summed it up so well, “If our state leaders truly want a strong and capable workforce, then they need to recognize that education is the means to that end. Cutting funding for education and expecting a stronger economy is like turning off a sprinkler to save water and expecting the flowers to grow.”
Access to a quality education is essential for ensuring that our children are able to find good-paying jobs in the competitive job market of the 21st century. Our public schools and university system have historically provided students from every corner of our state with the opportunity to receive a top-notch education. After so many years of cuts, I am very concerned about the diminished educational opportunities for future generations of Wisconsin students.
In response to the continued defunding of public education, parents, grassroots citizen groups, school board members, education professionals and administrators have joined together to form the non-partisan Wisconsin Public Education Network. Members of the Network meet regularly and hold joint events across the state with the focus of preserving quality K-12 public education in Wisconsin. To change the current trend in public education requires the engagement of many people in communities across the state.
If you’d like to become involved or need more information about the Network you can contact Heather DuBois Bourenane, the Wisconsin Public Education Network Coordinator at hbd@WisconsinNetwork.org; phone number is (608) 572-1696 or on Facebook: www.facebook/WisconsinNetwork
Thank you for your continued advocacy for education. There are many additional details I can provide about the education budget. If you have additional questions or need resources, please give me a call or drop me a note.
State Senator, 31st Senate District
State Capitol Room 108 South – P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882
Toll Free: (877) 763-6636 or(608) 266-8546