By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – If Wednesday’s Senate Committee on Education hearing is any indication, the griping over the budget laid out in Act 32 last year is far from over.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, from the outset has expressed reservations about the committee hearing, led by the newly minted, albeit thin, Democratic majority in the Senate. Democrats took one seat in June recall elections, enough to give the party a one-vote majority, at least until the November elections.
“The days of saying, well, more money, more money, more money — unfortunately are over in this state and this country,” Olsen said, in reference to revenue for K-12 education, which has been hit by budget cuts as local governments tighten their belts across the country.
Act 32, the biennial spending plan, cut $834 million in state aid to school districts over the two- year budget. Many school districts offset the loss in state aid by using the reforms of Act 10, which curbed collective bargaining for most public employees. The controversial measure, which led to mass protests and a recall movement against Gov. Scott Walker and Republican senators, requires employees to contribute more to their pensions and up to 12.6 percent of their health-care costs. Act 10 also limits salary increases to the rate of inflation.
“I’m hoping that we hear today some things about, ‘Here’s some ideas and things that the Legislature can do in the next session bipartisanly to meet the challenges that Wisconsin is facing’… rather than just saying, ‘Well, we had to cut all these teachers and things are terrible and all that because that does not solve any problems.’”
Democrats countered the majority Republicans in the latest session weren’t in a much of a cooperative state of mind when they pushed through a budget unpopular with Democrats.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said the issue comes down to a constitutional question.
“If anything, we need to recognize the old normal in Wisconsin is written in our Constitution. And in our Constitution it says the state of Wisconsin should ensure equal education opportunity for every child,” Jauch said.
“And I suspect what we will hear today is story after story after story from school districts about the reality, the real world, that demonstrates that Wisconsin is not only violating its Constitution, but this Legislature has abandoned its moral commitment to equal education for every child,” he said.
Political grandstanding aside, the hearing generated a few ideas for legislators to consider when constructing the budget in the upcoming legislative session.
The committee heard testimony from Brian Pahnke of the Department of Public Instruction, who said State Superintendent Tony Evers plans to resubmit the ‘Fair Funding for our Future’ proposal, which would change the current education funding scheme in the state. The plan stalled in the Legislature during the latest budget cycle. According to Pahnke, the Fair Funding plan would guarantee state general equalization aid for every student in Wisconsin, incorporate poverty levels into the funding formula and move the school levy tax credit into general school aids.
He also claimed it would “hold the line” on property taxes.
Pahnke warned sequestration could cut aid received from the federal government by 7 percent to 9 percent beginning in fiscal 2013.
Carolyn Kelley and Jim Shaw, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shared research that correlated poverty levels with achievement gaps at Wisconsin’s public schools.
Shaw said the Legislature should consider revising school financing “to focus on student need, rather than property taxes.” He suggested bringing the state’s best teachers to the neediest children and extending instruction time to address the achievement gap among poor students.
Sen. Glenn Grothman disagreed, asking if the researchers had looked at other factors, such as household stability, in their research. They said they had not.
“The real elephant in the room,” said Todd Berry, president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, “is enrollment decline, because that’s what affects revenue limits.”
Data from DPI showed almost two-thirds of school districts in the state shed student enrollment numbers last year. In the past 15 years, K-12 enrollment grew just 0.2 percent – from 845,592 students to 847,574 students.
“Almost all 20 districts with the lowest ACT scores are rural, so there’s something more going on here than poverty. It’s demography and declining enrollment,” Berry said, adding 44 rural districts offer zero AP courses.
Berry suggested the first step was for the Legislature to recognize the problem.
“I don’t think anybody on either side of the aisle should have any problem with trying to figure out how to do it, because you’re not talking a lot of money,” he said.
Berry said without changes, some rural school districts would soon be forced to close.
“I don’t think anybody here wants to have on their resume they presided over the closing of a couple school districts,” Berry said, offering improved technology as a way to help compensate for the cost disadvantages of running a small school district in a large, rural area.
While urban districts often have classrooms of 25 to 30 students, rural districts sometimes have classrooms of four or five students.
“The word I hear more than money is flexibility,” Berry said about the conversations he’s had with superintendents across the state. “They talk again and again how certification and licensing is restricting their ability to adapt, they talk about competition for staff. More than anything, though, what I heard was technology — that a lot of their problems could be solved with technology.”
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