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When our family came to Racine in 1968, Wisconsin was known as a state with an outstanding public education system. However, much of the funding for those good schools came not from the state but from local property taxes. In the 1970s, Wisconsin ranked 40th in state funding for public schools while, at the same time, school tax assessments on local property continued to increase. From 1968 through 2007 several school funding commissions were initiated by both Republican and Democratic governors, but most efforts failed to create remedies to this imbalance.

In 1993, a Republican governor challenged the state to pay a greater share of the cost of regular and special education and asked local school boards to set a baseline to determine future funding for each district. Most of the other 400 school districts in the state went to the upper limit to support the children in their communities, but in Racine, the School Board failed to secure a two-thirds majority and a lower baseline was set and fiscal conservatives voted to give these future funds back to the state.

This decision, made 25 years ago has had an on-going detrimental impact on RUSD’s annual budget. If the board had levied to the maximum allowable level, we would have had — according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction — $18 million more in 2016 to support our schools.

In his 2017-2019 budget, Scott Walker modestly increased state funding for schools, but that had been preceded by eight years of cuts. Between 2008 and 2016, Wisconsin had the fifth-highest cuts to education in the country —12.5% — while, at the same time, the legislature cut personal and corporate taxes. These losses to school district budgets were offset, to some extent, by teacher givebacks as a result of Act 10.

Last year, Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, created a bi-partisan Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, led by Republican Senator Luther Olsen and Republican Assemblyman Joel Kitchens. The Commission’s charge was to “examine how tax dollars are distributed to schools and make recommendations to better meet the needs of the students of the state.” After holding eight public hearings, the Commission made 18 recommendations that were unanimously endorsed by the 16 Commission members.

Among the recommendations were the following:

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  • restore state funding for regular education to 66% (currently 61%),
  • increase special education funding to 60% over 2 years (currently 24.5%)
  • move from half-day funding to full-day funding for 4-year-old kindergarten. (In doing this, the commission cited the experience of the state of Utah which found that, by addressing special needs issues in 4-year-olds, special education costs were significantly lowered in higher grades.) A great return on investment.

Citing “testimony that was given regarding the increasing number of low-income pupils enrolled in public schools and the additional costs of educating such pupils,” the Commission also recommended weighing low-income students at a 1.2 full-time equivalent level. According to some estimates, this would increase funding for RUSD by $22 million.

In these days when we are witnessing several areas of contention between the legislative and executive branches in our state, it is heartening to see that Gov. Evers’ budget proposals are very similar to the recommendations of the Republican-led Commission. This gives us a real opportunity for bipartisan support across the state. As Sen. Olsen pointed out, the time is right to enact these recommendations.

A January 2019 Marquette University poll, in which Wisconsin taxpayers — who voted for more than $2 billion in school funding referenda in November 2018 — overwhelmingly indicated they would rather pay more for schools than have tax reductions.

In presenting these recommendations, Sen. Olsen and Rep. Kitchens urged the citizens of Wisconsin to advocate for change by attending community information sessions and speaking up at finance committee budget hearings. The good, bipartisan work of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding reminds us that we all have a responsibility to ensure that our schools are properly funded so our youth, our communities, our workforce — and yes, our tax base — can continue to grow and thrive.

The good, bipartisan work of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding reminds us that we all have a responsibility to ensure that our schools are properly funded so our youth, our communities, our workforce — and yes, our tax base — can continue to grow and thrive.

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Mike Frontier is the vice president of the Racine Unified Board of Education.

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