Question: When is $129 million not $129 million?
Answer: When it is the additional aid Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker promised to send to the state’s public schools.
Despite the Governor’s claimed increase for 2013-15 ─ an anemic and inadequate one percent even if true ─ it is really only $39 million …. a paltry half-percent increase or $44.83 per student even if schools could spend it (but more on that later).
This is a cruel joke on kids who only want a quality education. It is also public policy that calls into question the moral commitment of the administration to public education.
How did Gov. Walker’s promise go so horribly wrong? Here’s what happened according to the non-partisan, highly respected Legislative Fiscal Bureau:
- After the budget was analyzed, Gov. Walker’s marker of a $129 million increase to help educate public school students turns out to be only $111 million.
- But even that wasn’t the final number. The Governor’s education policy initiatives are more about making a conservative political statement than educating children: This budget contains $23 million ─ taken from public school aid ─ that goes to private charters.
- Same thing for special education vouchers that siphoned off another $21 million.
- Finally, Gov. Walker is calling for an expansion of the regular voucher program ─ again, a political rather than educational statement─that costs public schools another $28 million in desperately needed resources.
What started as an anemic bump in public school aid, therefore, turns out to be a sad pittance of $39 million.
Ah, if only that were true. In his first budget two years ago, Gov. Walker reduced something called the revenue limit, an action that took away the ability of local school boards to spend on children the state aid they were given. Yes, I know, strange… but true. This budget continues that travesty so that even the $39 million in additional revenue can’t be spent in the classroom and, instead, merely provides an insignificant amount of property tax relief.
So, where does that leave our children, their schools and our communities? It leaves them deeper in the same hole they’ve been in for decades.
First off, Wisconsin’s broken school-funding system has relentlessly widened the gap between the cost of quality education and the state’s share of that cost, resulting in the loss of teachers, programs and services since the early 1990s. This budget does nothing to fix that.
Second, this budget also fails to restore about $400 million in cuts made during the administration of Gov. Jim Doyle and the $750 million slash-and-burn in the first year of Gov. Walker’s tenure.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called Walker’s education plan a mirage. They're right, and we might add words like “malarkey,” “shell game,” “smoke and mirrors,” “cynical” and “bait-and-switch.”
It would be so easy to do the right thing. Schools need resources to give kids a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. The state has announced it has a surplus, but it is a surplus created on the backs of children. All Gov. Walker and the Legislature have to do ─ what they should be morally obligated to do ─ is return the money they took away two years ago.
So what can we do about it? Budget deliberations are underway. Now is the time to act. Contact the Governor, contact your legislators and contact the media with the message that local school boards need the ability to raise and spend at least an additional $150 per student (understanding it would take $230 just to keep up with inflation) and the state needs to kick in enough aid to make sure the increase doesn’t fall on the backs of overburdened property taxpayers. It would also be a good idea for lawmakers to take political theory like vouchers out of the budget and debate it in the full light of day.
Anything less is inexcusable. Public education is in a resource crisis and the best our elected officials can do is play political games with our kids and their schools. The media has been hoaxed, the public has been flimflammed and our children have been shortchanged. It’s time to ask some tough questions and demand some accountability.