In 2000, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court established an educational standard in Vincent v. Voight which provides that “Wisconsin students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity to a sound basic education . . . that will equip students for their roles as citizens and enable them to succeed economically and personally.” The court also required that the state system of funding public schools is required to take into consideration “districts with disproportionate numbers of disabled students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with limited English language skills.”
In the past decade the needs and costs of serving these populations of students have grown while the level of state financial support for programs serving their needs has declined. The percentage of disabled students in our public schools has remained at about 14% of the total school-age population or around 120,000 pupils while the diversity of needs and the costs to serve these children has continued to rise. Yet, state aid has stagnated at $368M since 2008.
A decade ago 27.6% of our Wisconsin’s public school students (or 242,666 pupils) were economically disadvantaged. The number of disadvantaged students has risen by 49% to 360,822, now making up 41.4% of all students. During this same time state funding for low income students has increased by only 33% and currently stands at $125.6M.
The number of students with limited English language skills in Wisconsin public schools has increased by 40% since 2002-03 when they represented 3.9% of the total school-age population (34.000 pupils). That number has grown to 48,000 pupils, or 5.5% of the total population by 2013. This represents a 40% increase and yet the state support for bilingual/bi-cultural programs in our schools has fluctuated. Where it was once $9,890,400, state support now totals only $8.5M to support the needs of these children.
Students who are economically disadvantaged or for whom English is a second language along with those with disabilities exist in school districts throughout our state, and they are more costly to educate. Yet, under the state-imposed revenue limits, when the needs of children in these categories are not adequately funded, opportunities available to all students are reduced. The proposed state budget contains no additional funding for any of these programs.
Ironically, the original voucher program in Milwaukee that began in 1990 was aimed at lower income families. In order to qualify to attend a choice school, families had to then live below 175% of the federal poverty level. That threshold has since been raised so that families living up to 300% of the poverty level in Milwaukee and Racine are now eligible. That means that a family of four with an income of up to $77,000 is now able to attend a private choice school. These “choice” programs in WI have become nothing but entitlement programs for moderate to upper income families in these communities! And, by the way, we are all paying for 61.6% of these costs through our income and sales tax payments.
The budget proposal currently before the legislature calls for no additional state support to help public school districts with disproportionate numbers of disabled students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with limited English language skills. Further limiting resources for these programs impacts ALL school children across the state. In addition, the budget establishes a voucher program for mildly impaired disabled students that stands to drain another $21M away from public schools, an effort aimed at spreading private choice schools statewide.
If you believe, as our Supreme Court has stated, that all Wisconsin students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity and that all children, regardless of their economic circumstances or their abilities, deserve to have educational programs that are consistently and adequately funded, then please contact your legislators to tell them to PLEASE FUND OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS instead of taking resources away from them to provide entitlement programs like vouchers and charters that and send money to families who can already afford these options and to private enterprise instead!
Bambi Statz, PhD, is the executive director of the Association for Equity in Funding.