Rolling out a key plank of his budget, Gov. Scott Walker called for a $649 million boost to K-12 education as part of a plan that would increase per-pupil funding statewide while also targeting more money to Milwaukee Public Schools and rural districts.
The guv said the proposal, which will be included in the two-year budget he releases Wednesday, is part of an overall effort to better prepare Wisconsin’s workforce. He also said it would result in a property tax bill on the average home that is lower in 2018 than it was before he took office in 2011 while pushing state aid for K-12 to an all-time high of $11.5 billion.
“We’re invest in our priorities, and priority No. 1 is education,” Walker said.
The plan would represent a dramatic uptick in state aid for K-12 education after years of Walker getting hammered by Dems, who have accused him of funding school choice at the expense of public schools.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, knocked Walker, saying he has cut more than $1 billion from public schools since 2011. Shilling said anything “short of a full refund will continue to hurt hardworking families” while criticizing the state aid going to vouchers.
Walker said under state law, the vouchers would see a similar bump in per-pupil aid as what public schools would receive.
Barca said he was still looking for details and questioned whether the plan would result in schools “struggling to keep the lights on” getting a smaller increase per student than voucher schools.
“Every child in Wisconsin deserves and our economy needs quality education,” Barca said. “We need a budget to support that.”
Walker’s proposal almost meets the full amount state Superintendent Tony Evers had included in his budget request, though it would divvy up the money differently.
Evers called for putting an additional $514.2 million into the general school aid formula, which distributes state dollars based on a district’s property tax base. Poorer districts benefit more than wealthy ones under that approach.
Walker is calling for $509.2 million to be pumped into a categorical aid that was created to give districts a flat per-pupil aid payment that is not based on a district’s wealth.
The current budget included a $250 per-pupil payment in 2016-17, which amounted to $210.7 million, according to the guv’s office.
Walker is calling for an increase of $200 per student in the first year of the budget and an additional $204 in 2018-19. That would mean the per-pupil payment would hit $654 in the second year of the budget.
Walker’s office said under the plan, the state would pick up 64.6 percent of public school costs in 2018-19, the highest in 10 years. It was last that high in 2009, when the state covered 65.8 percent of costs, and dipped to 61.7 percent in 2012.
Evers, who is up for re-election this spring, said “I have to be pleased” with the proposal considering Walker’s overall funding level is in the same ballpark as the one he released in September.
“This is, frankly, a reflection of the discussion that not only we have had, but also discussions the people of Wisconsin have had with us in different ways,” Evers said.
The $649 million package includes programs to specifically target Milwaukee Public School as well as rural districts.
That includes $5.6 million in incentives for Milwaukee public, choice and charter schools in 2018-19 to improve their performance on state report cards, as well as $2.8 million to help MPS provide summer school.
Walker also wants to use $500,000 through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to support a mental health initiative to help students in Milwaukee schools.
Walker previously announced his rural schools initiative, which includes money for a broadband expansion as well as a bump in sparsity aid and an expansion of the program that helps smaller districts that cover a large geographical area.
The guv said he will not propose any changes to the governance of MPS in his proposal.
Joint Finance Co-chair Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield and a member of the committee, included a provision in the current budget to give the Milwaukee County exec the power to appoint someone to oversee a program that would take over failing MPS schools in an effort to turn them around. That effort, though, failed to get off the ground in part due to resistance from local school officials.
Darling applauded the guv’s K-12 proposal, saying it is remarkable difference from two years ago. Then, Walker’s original 2013-15 budget called for a cut in state aid to K-12 schools in the first year of the biennium. Though he called for restoring that money in the second year, it still would have resulted in a reduction in per-pupil spending authority for districts.
The Joint Finance Committee removed that provision before sending the budget back to Walker for his signature.
Darling said in addition to Walker’s proposals for Milwaukee schools, she also hopes to include a provision in the budget to partner with the district and provide wraparound services to improve the learning environment.
“It’s never enough,” Darling said. “But we’re trending in the right direction where we can say education is a major priority.”
Other provisions of the package include:
*$3 million for school social workers;
*$2.5 million for grants to help districts and independent charter schools connect youth to mental health services;
*$1 million to train school district and independent charter school employees to conduct mental health screenings;
*$2.9 million for an early college credit program for high school students. It would reduce per credit costs for schools and students;
*$7.6 million for awards to districts that help students with disabilities gain employment;
*And $300,000 to fund an anti-bullying curriculum.
JFC Co-chair John Nygren, R-Marinette, called Walker’s proposal a “big number.”
“I don’t know how people can be critical of this from an investment standpoint,” Nygren said. “But we on Joint Finance need to look at the budget in totality. What about Medicaid? What about UW? What about Corrections? And the big one, what about transportation long-term?”
Walker’s call comes after the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau predicted the state would have more than $700 million through mid-2019 than it had been expecting.
Some lawmakers have called for an increase in transportation funding, though Walker has said he would veto any budget that increased the registration fee or gas tax without an offsetting tax cut elsewhere. In recent weeks, he has continued to express his opposition to increasing the gas tax.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was noncommittal about the guv’s proposal, saying education “will be only one of many priorities that the Senate will weigh once the budget is before the Legislature. We are thrilled that recent projections have demonstrated that Wisconsin is on strong financial footing and we must continue to use caution in determining how to allocate state funds.”