Projected surplus gives governor, Legislature a chance to make a down-payment on undoing mistakes of the past

Wisconsin has a $900 million budget surplus.

In part, and in one of the great injustices in state history, it was built on the backs of over 800,000 children in our public schools.

The moral and equitable thing to do is begin fixing the damage that was done to our public schools and at least make a down-payment on the cuts of the past.

There are more than enough resources to fund “Fair Funding for Our Future,” state school Superintendent Tony Evers’ plan to reinvest in our public schools. All of our children deserve the opportunity to learn and succeed and this is a step in that direction. If that is too much for legislators to swallow all in one gulp, how about investing that surplus in the special education programs and services that have been whittled away over the years.

Our public schools are the heart of every community in Wisconsin. Our children and their education mean bright futures for all of us. The community’s job in that relationship is to support its public schools and make sure every child has the opportunity for a world-class education. It is the state’s job to help local school districts make that crucial investment in young people.

For too many years, governors and legislators haven’t lived up to those values. Our children deserve better.

There is work to do. For over two decades, Democrats and Republicans refused to change a school-funding system that resulted in fewer quality teachers, relevant textbooks, necessary technology, arts programs, and safe facilities. In the 2011-13 state budget, $1.6 billion was siphoned out of the classrooms of our public school children, much of it going to expand the reach of private, unaccountable, and in some cases for-profit institutions. The 2013-15 budget continued the trend.

The state has a moral and constitutional obligation to provide a free and quality public education to every child in the state and it hasn’t lived up to that obligation.

Things are so bad that one national group says Wisconsin’s investment in K-12 schools was has been cut by 15.3 percent since 2008, a deeper cut than in 43 other states.

Wisconsin values are that all children deserve the opportunity to learn. Not only is it the moral thing to do, it is an investment that pays economic and social dividends well into the future.

What has happened to programs and services for special education children is the perfect example of how far we have strayed from those common-sense concepts of economic justice and social equality.

In the 1970s local school districts were reimbursed for 70 percent of the cost of education for children with special needs. It was the right thing to do. Since that time we have strayed from those values. Today the reimbursement rate is under 30 percent. Not only are children with special needs left in the lurch but resources to other programs and services are negatively impacted and property taxes are increased.

Governor Scott Walker and the majority in the Legislature have the chance to fix the problems they and others created over the decades. Part of that $900 million surplus would go a long way toward the needed and smart reinvestment in our public schools.

While it might seem like the right thing to do, early signals from the Capitol aren’t positive. The talk is about spending the projected surplus on even more tax cuts rather than investing it in our shared future.

Our elected officials can still do the right thing. “Fair Funding for Our Future” is Superintendent Evers’ plan to fix the flaws in the present funding system and begin the long road back to a place where our investment in our public school children equals the importance of their education. It is a fair plan, it is a common-sense plan, and it is a bi-partisan plan. Perhaps most importantly, in Wisconsin’s economic reality it is a plan that we can afford.

There is a ray of hope. Thirty-three members of the Legislature have signed on as sponsors of LRB2673/2, legislation in the Wisconsin tradition that uses public tax dollars wisely and where they can do the most good — in our public schools. It is equitable legislation that recognizes the needs of all children and all communities and begins the type of reinvestment in our public schools suggested in 2009 by none other than the present Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Racine.

The bill hasn’t been assigned to a committee yet, but that action should be coming soon. Stay tuned.

If that is too much for legislators, the biggest bang for their buck would be to do the right thing and increase our investment in special education. While it is the moral and common-sense thing to do, providing programs and services to our most vulnerable students is expensive. That’s why the state decided decades ago to augment the effort of local property taxpayers. Increasing funding to assist schools with the costs in this area — moving back to where we were and should be — would benefit every district in the state.

We have the money. Now our elected officials just have to reclaim their values and find the political courage to do the right thing.

Communities around Wisconsin are vibrant, wonderful places to live. Public schools are the heart and soul of those communities. We value our children and we value their education because they will shape our futures. For far too long we have strayed from those values. Now is the time to reinvest in our communities and the world-class public schools that make them great.

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