SOS: A distress signal to parents of Wisconsin public school kids

For years, many of we suburban moms and dads have viewed the voucher school versus public school funding debate from the outside looking in.

After all, in Wauwatosa, none of our leaders ran on a platform to siphon money away from Wauwatosa public schools and instead route it to private schools. Our Wauwatosa schools are some of the best in the state – and the nation – so it seemed impossible that our leaders would try to “fix” something that isn’t broken.

We still cannot believe what actually happened.

Despite the clear call from thousands of parents statewide – 3,000 from Wauwatosa alone – to fully-fund our public schools and remove policy items from the budget, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) did the exact opposite.

On May 20, 2015, the JFC voted on education spending for the 2015-2017 biennium. After the vote, Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), a JFC member, said the JFC went “above and beyond restoring funds to K-12 education.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Sen. Vukmir and her JFC colleagues – including Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who also represents Wauwatosa – reneged on their promises to support public education:

  • The JFC claims to have restored Gov. Walker’s $127 million cut in public school funding.  This is not true. Much of this funding will pay for an expansion of the state’s funding of private and religious schools, siphoning away money from our kids’ classrooms. 
  • The JFC also increased per-pupil payments for charter and voucher schools. This, too, will reduce general aid to public schools – and even merely “restoring” Gov. Walker’s cut to public education would have meant a decrease, once inflation is taken into account.
  • The JFC inserted a provision requiring public school districts to allow charter, voucher and home-schooled students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities sponsored by the public schools – at the expense of the public school districts.
  • Based on applications received, 2,613 more students will be eligible for the statewide voucher program in 2015-16. Of those students, 81 percent already attend private schools.
  • The JFC also increased the enrollment cap on the statewide voucher program in 2016-17. The cap will increase annually for 10 years, when it will be eliminated entirely.

If enacted, the JFC’s actions will result in an overall reduction of $600 million to $800 million in state support to public education – and represents a $600 to $800 million increase in taxpayer funding for private schools.

Over the last several months, Wauwatosa parents have joined parents across Wisconsin – Republicans, Democrats and independents – to oppose Gov. Walker’s proposed cuts to public education. We formed Support Our Schools (SOS) Wauwatosa, knocked on doors, forwarded thousands of letters, made telephone calls, sent e-mails and attended legislative hearings inside and outside of our city, all in support of our public schools.

Sen. Vukmir and Rep. Kooyenga repeatedly assured SOS Wauwatosa that public school funding would not be cut and that the JFC’s work would “surpass our expectations.” They have broken their promises. After telling us that “public schools are our top priority,” they have shown that they favor private schools. No legislator in any party ran for election on such a platform. But these public officials are creating a system that prioritizes private schools over public schools.

A recent Marquette University Law School poll showed that 78% of Wisconsinites support full funding for our public schools. Yet, for the first time ever, per-pupil funding for public education in Wisconsin will be below the national average. Wisconsin’s legislators are not listening.

National media outlets are taking notice, with the Washington Post asking, “What the heck is going on with Wisconsin public education?” They ask – and we ask – because it doesn’t benefit our kids, schools or parents.

Wisconsin created its charter and voucher programs to address perceived failings in some of Milwaukee’s public schools. Whether true or not, this perception does not justify expanding the charter and voucher programs and depriving high-achieving public schools of their funding. 

Studies consistently show that businesses prefer to locate where educational achievement is high. Wisconsin’s public schools are some of the country’s highest-achieving schools and provide state businesses with high-quality workers. Underfunding public schools, which educate the vast majority of the state’s residents, will damage Wisconsin’s ability to compete with other states.

Our children are our future. They deserve the quality of public education for which Wisconsin has always been known. No matter how good private schools are, they do not represent Wauwatosa – or Wausau, Eau Claire or Lake Mills. Our public schools are the bedrock of Wisconsin’s communities, and weakening our public schools will weaken our communities. 

In the short term, SOS Wauwatosa and other parents’ groups across the state will advocate for changes in the JFC’s budget proposals. In the long term, we will continue our fight for adequate funding for public schools beyond the 2015-17 biennium. We are sending an “SOS” to all parents to urge legislators to do what is right for our kids, our schools and our communities.

SOS Wauwatosa commits to remaining an active, permanent nonpartisan community organization that will educate and engage the public in decisions that affect our public schools. 

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