UW and K-12 schools get major cuts to fill his $2.2 billion deficit
By Lisa Kaiser Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015 Shephard Express
It was no surprise that when Gov. Scott Walker unveiled his proposed two-year budget last week he included massive cuts to public education.
The governor famously slashed $1.1 billion from public schools in his first budget, along with implementing tight spending caps that prevented districts from raising property taxes to make up the shortfall and all but eliminating collective bargaining rights for teachers and staff.
But facing a $2.2 billion structural deficit in his next budget as he eyes the White House, Walker topped himself last week. Not only did he syphon off more than $400 million from public schools from K-12 to the university level, but he also attempted to eliminate the Wisconsin Idea and change the University of Wisconsin’s mission to “develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs,” a task best handled by our technical colleges.
When the “Walker Idea” was spotted by the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, the governor tried to back away from his plan, claiming it was a “drafting error,” a “miscommunication” and not a “big deal” that could be dismissed in a Tweet.
But Walker’s rewriting of the Wisconsin Idea is a big deal, and it’s yet another attempt by the governor to weaken our public schools and devalue education in Wisconsin.
In a speech before the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents on Thursday, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank explained how devastating the cuts would be. UW-Madison would take a $91 million hit in Walker’s budget, a massive cut that cannot be filled with tuition—Walker is implementing a two-year tuition freeze—or by trimming waste. None of UW-Madison’s peer schools are facing such massive cuts, Blank said, and other schools will poach the university’s talent and prospective students as they flee the state for a more welcoming and financially supportive environment. And that’s a terrible strategy for the state’s long-term economic prospects. Historically, Wisconsin has had one of the finest higher education systems in the U.S.
“With this budget, if you are a really top Wisconsin student you might be looking a little harder at some of the other really top schools elsewhere in the country,” Blank told the regents. “And you all know that it’s just harder to bring really top talent back once they’ve left the state.”
State Superintendent Ignored
But Walker’s $300 million cut to the UW System isn’t the only way he’s gutting public education. Although the state’s technical colleges aren’t harmed, K-12 public schools also face an impactful $127 million cut on top of $834 million cut Walker imposed in his first budget.
It didn’t have to be this way, though.
Last fall, state Superintendent Tony Evers unveiled his proposed budget for 2015-2017, the highlight of which is the Fair Funding for Our Future plan meant to address the state’s broken and highly complex schools funding formula. Evers wanted to help out districts with high property value but not high incomes, districts that receive reduced state aid because they look wealthy. He also wanted to guarantee that each student receives $3,000 in state aid and eventually get the state to recommit to funding two-thirds of a per pupil cost, a promise that fell apart about a decade ago.
Redistributing state aid under the Fair Funding plan would reduce property tax burden at the local level, Evers says, and boost state aid for 95% of the 424 districts around the state. Evers also wanted to address support for English-language learning, rural districts and class size through the SAGE program.
Although Evers is a constitutional, independently elected officer who is the state’s education chief, very little of his proposal ended up in Walker’s budget.
Instead of fixing the funding formula, Walker is keeping general state aid flat next year. He’s also eliminating $127 million of what’s known as categorical aids, targeted funds for specific programs such as SAGE; science technology, engineering and math (STEM) programming; school breakfast; special education aid and more. He’s even doing away with the Chapter 220 program in Milwaukee, an important voluntary integration program that allows MPS’s ethnic and racial minority students to attend predominantly white suburban schools and white suburban students to attend MPS schools.
The categorical cuts will be restored in the second year of Walker’s budget, but over the course of the two years schools will lose $135 in state aid per pupil.
“I think it’s a huge shift away from the state’s long-term, long and proud commitment of investing in education at all levels,” said Jon Peacock, research director for Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. “It’s going to severely compound the fiscal challenges for schools that began with the governor’s first budget.”
Superintendent Evers blasted Walker’s education budget in a statement last week, saying it “advances a political agenda based on an ideological checklist.”
“It does not increase investments in local public schools,” Evers said in his statement. “This budget sets Wisconsin on the path to delivering a legacy of less for hundreds of thousands of public school kids in local revenue limit authority and state aid.”
Michael Bonds, president of the Milwaukee Public Schools board, said MPS will lose $12 million in the next academic year. But its cost to continue operating next year is an additional $11 million. So MPS will find itself with a $23 million hole in the fall. That’s on top of the $84 million in lost aid MPS had to cope with in Walker’s first budget.
“It’s untenable,” Bonds told the Shepherd. “We keep cutting and cutting but at some point there won’t be anything left to cut.”
He said that Act 10, Walker’s signature piece of union-busting legislation, did help the district cut its unfunded liabilities and expenses. But the governor’s constant cuts to classroom funds, stringent revenue caps, continual changes in education policies and state support for voucher and charter schools have challenged the district to do more with less. He said that Walker backed off a proposal to impose sanctions on and create a recovery district for “failing” schools, but that idea is still popular among legislative Republicans, including state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills).
“It’s been a mixed bag,” Bonds said of Walker’s education policies.
But Milwaukee isn’t alone. Even suburban, wealthier districts would be harmed by Walker’s budget. Cheryl Maranto, a member of the Whitefish Bay School Board, said that the district will lose an estimated $411,000 of its $30 million operating budget. She said the district, like all districts around the state, is running about as lean as it possibly can, thanks to almost two decades of revenue caps and Act 10’s massive cuts.
“Even flat funding, no increase, would have been a challenge,” Maranto told the Shepherd. “Unfortunately, the governor can’t require our utilities and our vendors to not increase their prices.”
She said she was especially dismayed by the termination of the Chapter 220 program. Whitefish Bay was a major participant in the program to increase the number of minority students in the district.
“Our schools are enriched by the diversity,” Maranto said.
Support for Privatization Schemes
Although Walker is chipping away at public schools to cover his own budget hole, he still managed to find money to expand charter and voucher schools—and let them get away with little oversight.
Walker has proposed to lift the cap on voucher schools, meaning that additional students from moderate- and low-income families can attend private schools at the state taxpayers’ expense. Walker doesn’t indicate how many students will take advantage of the offer, but he did allocate an extra $17 million for the expanded program in the next two years. He’s also loosened up voucher school accountability requirements that were set to kick in this year. Instead of providing parents with a way to make apples-to-apples comparisons between public and other types of schools, Walker’s plan would simply make it more confusing.
Walker has been a staunch and steady supporter of vouchers throughout his career. And it’s no wonder why: Out-of-state voucher advocates such as the Walmart heirs and the DeVos family are listed among his consistent, high-dollar donors and the movement in Wisconsin uses former Republican legislative leaders Scott Jensen, Jeff Fitzgerald and John Gard as lobbyists. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, voucher advocates ponied up $2.4 million to support Walker directly and with independent expenditures since 2009.
The governor has also revived the idea of establishing a state-level charter school oversight board, which would consist of Evers and two of his appointees as well as gubernatorial and legislative leaders’ appointees, so it likely will be dominated by conservative anti-public education members. The unelected board, flush with $4 million in state funding, would be able to sign up new charter schools around the state. Walker and others have floated this idea in the past, but nothing has been implemented at the state level.
In addition to promoting vouchers and charters, Walker is doing away with important accountability measures. He wants to change state report cards and testing requirements and issue teachers licenses to those who lack a degree in education but have earned a bachelors’ degree. Walker’s stance on Common Core-aligned standards and testing is something that he’s waffled on in the past. Now, as he runs for president, he’s attacking them in his budget, perhaps because reputed GOP frontrunner Jeb Bush is a staunch Common Core advocate.