For the City Times
By State Senator Julie Lassa
Now that they are running for reelection, some Republican state legislators are touting their support for public education. But figures released last week by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau demonstrate the degree to which the Republican legislative majority has betrayed Wisconsin’s historic commitment to public schools in favor of unaccountable private voucher schools.
During the 2010-2011 school year, the voucher program was still limited to poor families in Milwaukee and Racine. In that year, state taxpayers paid $6,442 per pupil to the private schools in the voucher program. That same year, the general aid payments to public schools totaled just $5,318 per student.
As soon as they took control of both the Legislature and Governor’s office, Republicans drastically cut public school budgets using the global recession as an excuse. At the same time however, they vastly expanded the voucher school program, raising the income limits for eligibility and making the program statewide. By the 2015-2016 school year, the average payment to voucher schools, which only 3 percent of Wisconsin students attend, had jumped to $7,353 per pupil, an increase of more than 14 percent. Meanwhile, general aid to public schools had dropped to $5,108. In total, general and categorical aid to public schools fell by nearly $200 million, while the cost of the voucher school program to taxpayers actually increased.
We know the impact this has had on our public schools. This past year, most of the school districts in central and west central Wisconsin saw further cuts in general school aids, including cuts of $232,000 in Wautoma, $311,000 in Nekoosa, $406,000 in Adams-Friendship, $505,000 in Wisconsin Rapids, and $695,000 in Tomah. Area school administrators tell me that as a result of the cumulative effects of years of Republican budget cuts, they have been reducing and eliminating programs, putting off maintenance and struggling to keep up with technology demands and necessary support services for students. Across the state, more communities have voted to raise property taxes to make up for the Republicans’ cuts in state school aid. The number of school referendums climbed from 13 in 2012 to 35 last year.
The contrast with our neighbors in Minnesota is striking. While Wisconsin Republicans have been slashing education funding, over the same period Minnesota increased its investment in public schools by $66 million dollars, and is projected to increase spending on education by 31 percent by 2020. I think it’s no coincidence that Minnesota also has a more robust economy than Wisconsin and a budget surplus compared to our growing budget deficits. Many studies have shown that strong public education is linked to a strong economy; by balancing the state budget on the backs of public school children, Wisconsin Republicans are courting economic disaster.
Now, many of the Republican legislators whose party is responsible for taking money from the public schools to give to voucher school special interests are out on the campaign trail styling themselves as friends of public education. They are hoping that their campaign rhetoric will make voters forget what they actually did in office. I don’t think they’ll be fooled, however. The constituents I talk to value their public schools and want the Legislature to restore their funding and stop the damage that Republican education cuts have caused. They know that the future of our children, and our state’s economy, demands it.