By Graham Kilmer
The Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee (JFC) passed a last minute omnibus motion early Wednesday morning, which contained provisions fundamentally impacting the structure of funding for education in the state.
“I fear the direction we are headed takes us away from Wisconsin’s history of academic success,” said Tony Evers, State Superintendent.
The motion, written by GOP JFC co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills and Rep. John Nygren of Marinette, passed with a 12 to four vote divided starkly along partisan lines, and contains provisions which had not been vetted by a public hearing, nor seen by any of the democratic members of the JFC prior to late Tuesday night.
Less for Public Schools & More for Private
One of the provisions within the motion pulls large amounts of funding from public school districts for an expansion of the private school choice program. The provision calls for using public funds to provide $18.4 million in the 2015-16 school year and $29.4 million the following year to fund private schools around the state. The provision would result in an equivalent reduction in general financial assistance for public school districts.
Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said the GOP would be, “draining public schools of tens of millions of dollars they are giving to private schools.”
Several Democrats in the legislature slammed the Republican motion for ignoring the real problems that face Wisconsin students, as well as further inhibiting the success of public schools.
“Instead of recycling failed, politically driven policies that ignore unique and complex issues facing Milwaukee children and families, we should be focusing on transformative outcomes for our students and our communities,” said Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee).
The JFC restored funding cuts from education contained in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal with a $100 increase in aid per student during the second year of the biennium. Prior to the GOP JFC members’ last minute omnibus motion, the Democrats had entered a motion to increase public school funding by $454 million; however it was shot down by the JFC. The proposal would have created an additional funding increase of $300 for every public school student.
“At the same time they’re at the front door of the schoolhouse boasting that they’re putting money inside, they’re sneaking money out the back door to subsidize private schools,” said Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Council.
Sen. Lena Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) stated that she was committed to restoring funds for k-12 education, as well as “common-sense” reforms to ensure that public schools spend money more efficiently. One of the reforms she plugged was a repeal of the prevailing wage for state and local laborers.
MPS Takeover Plan
Another provision causing a stir amongst Democrats and education professionals is the proposal to create an authority that can wrest control of schools, identified as under-performing by Gov. Walker’s new school accountability system, from the Milwaukee Public School Board. The control, budgetary, and program related duties would be transferred to a non-elected official serving as a commissioner appointed by the county executive. The program has been coined as the MPS Takeover Plan. Officially, it’s called the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Plan (OSPP), requires the commissioner to identify at least one school to be transferred under the control of the OSPP during the 2015-16 school year.
“So-called ‘Opportunity Schools and Partnership Programs’ were not requested by Milwaukee or any of the large cities that could be affected,” said Rep. Barca, “No hearings were held and the effects could be devastating to our large school districts.”
The late-night GOP motion would also increase special needs funding at private schools by $12,000 per pupil. The revenue diverted to the private schools, who currently educate significantly less special needs students than their public counterparts, once again reduces funding from the state aid to public schools. Private schools set their own admission standards, and are not required to admit a resident student as public schools are.
“Our kids are not for sale,” said JFC member Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), “At a time when our neighborhood schools are struggling as a result of multiple Walker budget cuts, we should invest in our children.”
Committee Sides with Walker on Minority Students at Suburban Schools
The JFC also passed a provision Wednesday morning which modifies Gov. Walker’s proposal to prohibit students from participating in the chapter 220 integration aid program. The program originally provided funds as incentives for school districts to improve racial disparities within their schools by allowing minority students to attend schools other than those in their immediate neighborhood. So, minority students residing in Milwaukee could attend schools in the surrounding suburbs.
The JFC passed two alternatives: changing the program to stop admitting new students after the 2015-16 year, while also allowing currently participating k-8 students to attend the associated high school under the program.