If Wisconsin’s public schools have the resources to give all children the opportunities they need to learn, the majority of students will succeed in school. Most will get good, family-supporting jobs, the economy will hum and the impact on society will be positive.
On the other hand, if we don’t provide all children with a quality education, we can expect lower incomes, fewer jobs, less civic engagement, more crime and higher healthcare costs, according to “A Lost Opportunity: A 50 State Report on the Opportunity to Learn in America.”
This is nothing new. Historically, when our public schools have had the resources they needed, our children received great educational opportunities, teachers did their jobs well and the system worked. When schools are underfunded—as they are in Wisconsin today—children do not receive the opportunities they need to grow and thrive in a 21st Century economy.
In Wisconsin, for over two decades, state aid has paid a smaller and smaller portion of the cost of quality public education. The funding system is too complicated, too riddled with holes and too wrapped up in politics to do its job.
On top of that, former Gov. Jim Doyle, and to a much greater extent his successor Scott Walker, actually took revenue away from our schools and students. As a matter of fact, Walker’s $1.6 billion in revenue cuts were, according to State School Superintendent Tony Evers, “the greatest cut to education since the Great Depression.”
Everyone wants our children to be well educated and ready to participate successfully in life after school. But how do we make it happen? We know opportunities are the key, so we need to make sure schools have the resources they need to provide them. That happens when we solve two problems—fix our broken school-funding system and restore the devastating cuts to state aid.
The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) is a project of the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future (IWF) promoting Opportunity to Learn-Wisconsin. WAES’s answer to the two challenges is quite simple: just do it.
According to WAES, the formula can be fixed tomorrow if state government approves “Fair Funding for Our Future,” the reform plan offered by Superintendent Evers. It is a great first step that creates a structure that addresses long-standing problems with the formula by providing more funding for students in poverty, delivering much-needed state aid to all districts and strengthening rural schools and those with declining enrollment. Furthermore, it does this without further burdening property taxpayers.
That’s only half the solution, however. Wisconsin’s public schools are bleeding resources. “A Penny for Kids”, a one-cent increase in the state’s sales tax, would add approximately $900 million a year to state coffers to restore opportunities for kids that were stripped away in the last state budget. It also gives us a chance to begin building the quality public education system that will make the difference in school and in life for all of our children.
These are not problems without solutions. In fact, they can be solved tomorrow if there is the political will across the state and in Madison to get it done. WAES’ job is to work with organizations and individuals around the state to build that public will and demand that change finally happen.
One of Walker’s first acts in 2011, after he turned down the money for trains to Madison but before he “dropped the bomb” on labor unions, when he thought nobody outside the state house was paying attention, is he called a special session of the legislature and pushed through a new bill requiring a supermajority to raise sales taxes. Wisconsin has brutally high property taxes and, compared to most states, ridiculously low sales taxes. This furtive move, along with his huge tax give-aways rewarding the business buddies who supported him in the election, allowed him to claim we were in a budget crisis and he would have to make drastic cuts somewhere. Predicting where he would make those cuts was hardly rocket science. Those of us who had watched funding for libraries, parks, and schools dwindle under Walker’s county administration could have told you where the axe would fall.
The City of Milwaukee’s tax base has been shrinking for years as our schools face more serious challenges. One major reason we are losing revenue is that many of the people who grew up here and graduated from our schools have chosen to purchase homes out of town, especially in the suburbs of Ozaukee, Washington, or Waukesha County. Their property taxes are lower in those communities because of higher incomes and zoning and because suburban municipalities don’t have to provide the costly services Milwaukee does. Many of these people own businesses and employ MPS graduates at lower wages than they might pay their suburban neighbors.
Yet these people come into the city to visit our museums, theaters, music festivals, restaurants, and taverns. They use our county’s parks and beaches and skating rinks. They drive on our roads, use our sewers, and leave their garbage. So do people from Chicago and other areas out of state. And who picks up the tab for the repairing the roads and cleaning up after all these out-of-town visitors? The already over-taxed residents of Milwaukee.
Sales taxes may be more regressive than income taxes, but wisely designed, they could help us recoup some of the costs of providing city services to people who are not indigent city residents.