Walker’s budget is a school killer; legislative Republicans propose a severe beating instead

It’s budget season in Wisconsin, which means two things: One, the histrionics are dialed up to 11 (j’accuse, you say, and you’re right); and two, everyone I know and care about in education in Wisconsin is furious.

Two years ago, Governor Scott Walker’s first biennial budget was devastating to schools. In it, the revenue cap Wisconsin’s public schools operate under was slashed by $550 dollars per pupil (on average) for the 2011-2012 school year. State funding for schools was also slashed, both in general distributions to schools and in various kinds of categorical aids (funding for transportation or special education, etc.). The revenue cap meant that school districts could not just raise property taxes to make up for the decrease in state funding. What that meant was deep, across-the-board cuts in what Wisconsin’s public schools spent.

Some of that was made up for by the changes in the well-beaten dead horse that is Act 10, the law that made it illegal for school districts and unions to bargain over anything but meager salary increases, and forced districts to slash take-home pay for teachers by mandating different pension and health insurance payment schemes. But pretty much everywhere around the state, districts were cutting staff and programs in addition to salaries.

The 2011 cut in the revenue cap was even worse, because schools had come to rely on increases in the cap, included in state budgets for two decades prior, to help them defray the costs of inflation. The increases, usually around $200 per student per year, were often less than schools needed to keep up with increasing costs, but it was better than nothing.

So what that means is that for the 2011-2012 school year, districts were looking at a revenue cap gap of not just $550 per student, the size of the cut in the budget, but of $750 per student, the cut plus the missing increase.

For 2012-2013, Walker’s budget did allow a $50 increase per student in the revenue cap. But that still left schools down $900 from where they should have been had the traditional increases been allowed to continue.

You can argue that “we were broke” or some other defense of Walker’s budget, sure–and a lot of that happened at the time. I disagreed then and still do now. But the rallying call of Walker and his supporters since 2011 has been “it’s working.” Walker’s administration even set up a website by that name to promote the “success” of Walker’s budget. So if it’s working, and Wisconsin’s fiscal footing is far more sound, and we’re no longer broke, you might have expected Walker’s new budget to be more generous to schools. It is not.

Walker’s budget proposed two years of no increase at all in school districts’ revenue caps.

(Wisconsin’s public schools, which consistently rate as some of the best in the nation, get nothing; Wisconsin’s voucher schools, which even voucher supporters agree are basically no better than the Milwaukee Public Schools, arguably the worst district in the state, are getting a pretty sweet increase in funding in Walker’s proposal. How that makes sense is anybody’s guess.)

With a deficit of about $900 per student per year after 2012-2013, adding two years of nothing means that by the end of 2014-2015 means Wisconsin’s school districts will be down about $1300 per student per year from where a few years ago they might have expected to be at that time. For any district, that’s real money, and it’s especially devastating to large districts like Milwaukee ($104 million less), Madison ($32 million less), Kenosha ($30 million less), Racine ($28 million less), and Green Bay ($27 million less). For Milwaukee, that’s enough to pay for 1,100 more teachers, for example–almost as many as were laid off between 2009 and 2011. And the tax savings are negligible–less than $8 a month for a median-valued home in Wisconsin.

(And again, these are revenue caps; just because those funds would have been theoretically available doesn’t mean that every district would have spent that much.)

Since steep school cuts are likely this year in even the staunchest of Republican parts of the state, Wisconsin’s legislative Republicans on Friday rolled out an alternative to Walker’s severe schools budget:

The Republican president of the state Senate and the chairman of the Education Committee said Friday they are proposing an alternative plan to GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s budget that would allow public school spending to increase $150 more per student in each of the next two years.

Wow, $150. It is better than zero, sure; but after 2014-2015, schools will still be $1000 per student per year behind where they could have been, where they might have expected to be.

If Walker’s budget is a school killer–and I sure think it is–the Republican plan isn’t much better. It’s time for fair funding for our schools, and for our children.

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