State Got a Surplus? Reinvest It in Schools!

Thomas Beebe, Project Director, Opportunity to Learn - Wisconsin

There is a ray of hope for Wisconsin’s 800,000-plus public school children looking for quality educational opportunities. After 20 years of hemorrhaging resources to a broken school funding system and a state budget that slashed $1.6 billion from public school resources, at least a partial payback for all of that pain and suffering might be on the horizon.

Recently, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that state revenues have been higher than expected, and Wisconsin is looking at a surplus of $126 million. The final surplus could actually be higher and we’ll know when the “Annual Fiscal Report” is issued by the Department of Administration later this fall.

The point is: Our public school children and their educations were wracked in the biennial 2011-13 budget with devastating cuts to programs and services. If there is going to be a surplus, they are entitled to some, if not all, of it. And, if that is going to happen, each and every one of us needs to contact our legislators.

Now, in all fairness, many good, needed, and quality human services have been hit by the economic downturn and lack of adequate funding in the last state budget. Nothing, however, has a better claim on this unexpected windfall than our public schools.

Here’s the story.

For 20 years, Wisconsin’s irrational public school funding system has resulted in state resources becoming a smaller and smaller share of the actual cost of educating our children. As that happened, necessary programs and services were cut and quality began to slip. It’s been called “death by a thousand cuts” because we keep adapting to the new reality. Remember the story of the frog in the pot of cold water? As the temperature goes up, the frog doesn’t feel it until it’s too late.

Then, along came the last budget of Governor Jim Doyle and the first of new Governor Scott Walker. Before all was said and done, about $2 billion in resources were dragged out of our public schools. These cuts resulted in fewer subjects in core areas; larger class sizes; fewer career, agriculture, and technical education offerings; cuts in special education; and fewer class offerings in music, physical education, and the arts.

Now what we have is the same old irrational school funding system, unsustainable and unpredictable resources, veteran teachers fleeing in droves, and “less” education offered to our children─at the very time we should be talking about delivering quality learning opportunities to every child in the state.

As I said, though, there is a ray of hope in the budget surplus news. Our public schools are entitled to that $127 million─or whatever it turns out to be─or at least a sizeable chunk of it. There are many priorities in which we need to reinvest, but none is more deserving than the education of our children.

Again, we’re going to have to fight for our share for kids and their schools. Contact your legislators today. Tell them schools took more than their share of the cuts when things were bad and now its time to put some of those course offerings, quality programs, good teachers, and necessary services back in the classroom.

Really, it’s that important.

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