Scarce Money, Plenty of Enthusiasm Shape Wisconsin School Reform

Published January 24, 2011

Myriad reform proposals from new Republican legislators in Wisconsin are expected to wash away the state superintendent’s recent proposal to reorganize education funding.

State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers outlined a plan in mid-November to reduce schools’ share of local property taxes by increasing state expenditures to guarantee a minimum of $3,000 in state aid for each public school student. To cover it, he’s requesting a budget increase of $420 million over the next two years, “the smallest K-12 budget request in nearly a decade,” he wrote in the “Fair Funding for Our Future” proposal.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and new Republican majorities in both legislative houses have just learned the state must fill a two-year, $3 billion budget hole. That’s a fifth of next year’s budget.

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), the new co-chairman of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, pronounced Evers’ plan “dead on arrival.”

“I think those goals are very admirable,” she said. “But, you know, it’s a $6 billion budget just for education alone, and we don’t have the new money. I think we have to do better with less. That’s just where we are.”

Focus on ‘Bottom Line’
Wisconsin is one of several states struggling with large budget deficits, high unemployment, and, in particular, the end of onetime federal stimulus payments that legislators spent on continuing programs, teacher salaries, and benefits. ??Reflecting voter worries about taxes and spending, Wisconsin Republicans in November had their best midterm performance in 78 years, capturing a U.S. Senate seat, six out of eight congressional seats, and both houses of the state legislature.

“Traditional thinking says we need more fuel in the furnace, more money. When you don’t have money, you look at other options,” said George Lightbourne, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. “It’s the perfect time to advance education reform.”

Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the legislature will focus on the Evers’ plan’s bottom line rather than its particular provisions, said Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow at Marquette University Law School.

“It’s time to redo the state [school funding] formula in some fashion, make it clearer to understand and more connected to need,” he said, “but the real issue is going to be taxes and total spending. A proposal to increase the pot isn’t likely to get too warm a reception.”

Walker Promises More Choice
Walker’s team has not finalized its education agenda or budget, but the new administration plans to follow through on campaign promises to cut costs and expand choice, Press Secretary Cullen Werwie explained.

“Evers should be applauded for recognizing the need for real funding reform in our K-12 education system,” Werwie said. “As the state faces a $2.7 billion budget deficit, however, true funding reform means focusing on how to better spend the dollars we have today.”

At his inauguration on Jan. 3, Walker tied Wisconsin’s economic recovery to the state’s education system. “We will not abandon our fundamental responsibilities to protect our families and our property, provide for a high-quality education for our children, ensure care for the most vulnerable among us, and enhance the quality of life for our citizens,” he said. “A high quality of life, however, is not the result of a bigger, ever-expanding government.”

Union Opposition Expected
Lightbourne said Walker and Republican lawmakers can expect strong opposition from the Wisconsin Teachers Union, which has successfully stymied reform in the past—including winning limits on Milwaukee’s voucher program and maintaining caps on state charter schools in the last budget cycle.

“After the election it’s taken a few weeks for us to understand that the politics are now different,” he said.

“It’s likely to be a historic session. We don’t have to have that gridlock any more—[reform-minded legislators have] got the football and an open field.”

He expects the legislature to consider measures a surprising number of Wisconsinites supported in extensive polls WPRI conducted before the elections. These include a high school graduation test, basing teacher salaries on student test results, expanding school choice for low-income families, and tax credits for private school tuition.

Funding Plan ‘Falls Short’
Even traditionally minded educators like Evers agree “the status quo will hinder Wisconsin’s efforts to ensure every child graduates with the knowledge and skills needed for success,” said Evers’ spokesman Patrick Gasper.

State standardized test scores have slid in recent years. A state that previously prided itself on scores near the top of the nation now can’t get a third of its fourth graders to read at a basic level, Lightbourne notes. Black fourth graders in the state scored the worst in the country on reading, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The superintendent genuinely cares about educating kids, Lightbourne said, but his proposal falls short.

“[The tax change] is not a very substantial reform,” Lightbourne said. “Not one kid will be smarter or one better teacher put into the classroom because of that. It’s a slight alteration to the education beast driven by union contracts. It’s a relic, a car built for the 1940s. Don’t put new tread on the tires—you need a new car.”

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC

Sidebar: Wisconsin Superintendent’s Funding Proposals:

Wisconsin Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers proposes the following school funding ideas:

  • Guarantee a minimum of $3,000 in state funding for every public school student.
  • Streamline accounting procedures by redirecting two tax credits to the general fund.
  • Tie state school funding increases to the Consumer Price Index or 2 percent, whichever is greater, to make them predictable.
  • Reorganize and/or eliminate specific grant programs.
  • Establish a competitive grant program not unlike the national Race to The Top, aimed at boosting the state’s 89 percent graduation rate.
  • Increase state funding of Milwaukee’s vouchers and aid to charter schools by about $200 per student.