Op-ed: Politician-made perfect storm could damage our kids’ schools

The following is an op-ed from Wauwatosa Support Our Schools (SOS) President Mary Young.

There’s a perfect storm heading toward our kids’ Wisconsin public schools. If nothing is done, the damage will be widespread. For most urban and suburban kids, there may be no shelter to hide. The damage done would be 100 percent man-made by Madison politicians. Let me share three reasons why I’m so worried, why you should be too and what we can do about it.

1. State revenue is down – way down

Wisconsin’s budget is already underwater. Governor Scott Walker has already delayed $101 million in debt payments. And according to the Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP), state revenue – which funds our kids’ public schools among other priorities – is $90 million below projections as of May 2016. Despite low unemployment, the state isn’t seeing increased tax revenues. Why? WBP speculates that either the jobs numbers being touted are wrong or “the jobs being added are low-wage and not adding much to income taxes.”

If we don’t have revenue, we can’t support our kids’ K-12 schools. Without correction, the storm’s floodwaters will deepen our state’s already-underwater budget.  

The floodwater looms despite repeated promises from State Representative Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield, who infamously predicted in 2014 that the state’s tax cuts would beam sunshine on the economy and drive new revenue to fund schools. Those blue skies never came.

A year later, in a room filled with concerned public school parents, including me, Mr. Kooyenga again predicted that tax cuts would create plenty of revenue, bring budgets above water and fully-fund our kids’ K-12 schools. Again, those blue skies didn’t come.

We nonpartisan suburban public school parents aren’t ideological advocates for either tax cuts or tax increases. But we do believe in sound budgeting. We do it all the time – and we put our kids’ needs first. If a politician looks parents in the eye and says, “Believe me, there will be blue skies over your child’s school,” and then deeper darkness arrives – twice – that politician should apologize and work to right his wrongs.  

Politicians like Dale Kooyenga will inevitably leave citizens to fight over the life rafts. They’ll say there’s not enough resources to help protect all Wisconsinites from the storm. We can’t have schools, roads and care for seniors, they’ll say. But we have news for the politicians. We parents will not be lured into a false fight with our friends. We will stand together and question politicians who appear unable to manage our state’s finances and keep our state’s priorities afloat.

2. Locally elected school boards can’t fully-fund their own schools

Legislation currently prevents locally-elected school boards from levying enough property tax revenue to adequately support our kids’ schools. A “revenue cap” – set by politicians – regulates how much revenue Wisconsin’s school boards can raise.

When the storm hits, budget floodwaters deepen, and our kids’ schools are cut or closed, surprised parents may turn to their school boards for support. However, these local officials are currently forbidden by the state to offer shelter from the storm.  

One simple solution would be to raise the revenue cap, enabling locally-elected school boards to raise enough revenue to protect their schools. For so many reasons, it can and it must be done.  

3. The expansion of private school vouchers

Every dollar we spend on private school vouchers is one dollar that no longer supports our kids’ public schools. And over the next decade, the state will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on this program that – despite 25 years of trying – hasn’t improved education in Wisconsin by any meaningful measure. One simple solution is for Madison politicians to stop the expansion of private school vouchers until Wisconsin’s budget isn’t underwater.  

Man-made storm clouds are heading towards our kids’ schools – but the good news is that there are solutions. We need leadership from politicians like Dale Kooyenga if we’re going to keep our kids’ public schools safe from the storm.

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