Nothing good happened at JFC all-nighter for Wisconsin’s public schools

Nothing good happens in Wisconsin’s Capitol between bar time and breakfast. Majority members of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) proved that last Wednesday in the wee hours of the morning by passing a budget that puts devotion to political dogma ahead of the futures of our children.

What we got when the locked doors opened and Joint Finance members poured out of their all-nighter was a scheme that is ideologically driven, fiscally irresponsible, and educationally unproven.

Remember that old adage about how making laws is a lot like making sausage and it’s best not to watch either one being made? What happened in Wisconsin last week does a disservice to sausage makers everywhere.

If you believe in public education, value the impact of public schools on our communities, and understand that Wisconsin’s 870,000 public school children are our best hope for tomorrow, then the budget JFC sent to the Assembly to be rubber stamped is awful sausage.

It insulted 424 local school boards by offering them a handful of pennies after cutting them a truckload of dollars two years ago─and leaving $1.9 billion in new revenue on the table in the process. On top of that, the committee did a conservative governor one better and expanded to every corner of the state a scheme that allows private, unaccountable schools─with no creditable record of achievement─to use your tax dollars. Tax dollars, by the way, taken from underfunded public schools and already overburdened property taxpayers.

The JFC even found a way to put more pig hooves and chicken beaks in the sausage. While sending public school resources and public tax dollars to private schools, this breakfast link also gives a $31 million entitlement to some families of private school students, including even those attending the elite prep schools in southeastern Wisconsin suburbs.

The bottom line is that this budget is a bad deal for the very public education system that is the foundation of our state. I’m standing with Republican Senator Dale Schultz, of Richland Center, who said the plan puts the state on a “dangerous path” toward creating a parallel school system that will suck money away from public schools. Sen. Schultz calls the voucher expansion scheme the death knell for many schools.

If you want to know the details─at least as of now─here’s one by the teachers’ union and here’s one by the school boards’ association. Don’t, however, stop looking because we won’t know the entire truth for a week or so.

What’s more important than whining and eulogizing is organizing and acting. A battle was lost on behalf of public education, but the war goes on. Next stop for the budget is the Assembly, then the Senate, and finally to the Governor. We have opportunities along the way.

Messages are the same:

  • The ability of local school boards to raise and spend resources on our children must be increased at least $275 per-student, per-year and indexed to inflation thereafter.
  • Statewide voucher expansion must come out of the budget now. It raises property taxes, it takes resources from public schools, and there is little if any proof that the scheme works.

That’s it. It’s just a matter of fairness. For over two decades state government has reduced the opportunities available for public school students. This budget makes it worse by concentrating effort, time, and resources on the minority of kids while ignoring the vast majority.

So, what do we do:

  • Contact your legislators now, tomorrow, and every week until the budget process is wrapped up.
  • Tell your elected representatives you agree with Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, that we must “reject voucher expansion and reject those people who support expansion in the future.”
  • Let’s make sure that what was slipped into the budget between bar time and breakfast has the public scrutiny it deserves. Tell your legislators you want a public hearing on voucher expansion — something this “deal” never got.
  • Write letters to the editor asking your friends and neighbors to hold accountable any lawmaker who would politics and ideology over your children, your schools, and your communities.
  • Reach out to your local media and demand that they cover this story …. from the point of view of the local community. Your schools will lose money and you will pay more in taxes to support this scheme. If that isn’t a good enough reason to write about it …. well, I guess I’d be looking for a different source for news and opinions.

Go ahead and take some time to read the reviews of the JFC budget. It’s even alright to feel some frustration and grief. If children and their education is your goal, however, get over it and let’s make some better sausage.

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