Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

Gov. Scott Walker announced plans to pump more money into rural schools as he begins to roll out key parts of the two-year state budget plan he’ll unveil next week.

The rural schools initiative would amount to about $66.5 million in additional funding in the upcoming budget.

Walker laid out the initiative at three stops across the state Wednesday, pledging an increased broadband investment, more transportation aid to rural school districts and full funding of many Department of Public Instruction budget request items targeted to help rural schools.

That comes on top of the “significant investment” he says he’ll make for all public schools.

“Our reforms are working in Wisconsin, and it’s because they are working that we are able to make greater investments into our education system. I call it the ‘reform dividend.'” Walker said. “This increase in funding will provide greater stability for our rural school districts.”

Rural schools advocates, including the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and legislators, largely praised the guv’s announcement.

Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Rice Lake, who helped create the Rural Wisconsin Initiative last session, called the guv’s announcement a “step in the right direction,” praising Walker for “bringing attention to the concerns of our local schools.”

And Assembly education committee vice-chair Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, said Walker’s proposal shows a “commitment to support Wisconsin’s rural schools.”

Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance Executive Director Kim Kaukl had a more measured reaction. While he said Walker’s announcement was a “step in the right direction,” especially regarding the broadband funding that can also be used to establish infrastructure, he added some additional requests regarding sparsity aid apparently went unfulfilled.

And others, including Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, criticized Walker and the GOP for cutting state funding for public schools in past budgets.

“We need to restore the $1 billion in state aid that has been cut from our schools and put an end to Gov. Walker’s tax breaks that benefit millionaires and companies that outsource Wisconsin jobs,” she said.

State Superintendent Tony Evers, up for re-election this spring, commended Walker’s proposal, saying it would provide “much-needed resources to our rural schools.”

But he added more needs to be done to help address teacher shortages across rural school districts. That includes a measure to equalize funding among rural and wealthier school districts, which Evers submitted in his budget request.

The two candidates running against Evers in the February primary praised Walker’s proposal.

Lowell Holtz, the former superintendent of the Whitnall and Beloit school districts, said he appreciates Walker’s “understanding of, and his commitment to, the needs of Wisconsin’s rural school children.”

John Humphries, a former Dodgeville School District and DPI official, applauded Walker’s “commitment to ensuring children in rural areas have access to the resources they need.”

The primary is set for Feb. 21.

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