For the City Times
By State Senator Julie Lassa
The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently released a memo comparing the level of state general aid for public schools for the previous school year to its levels in 2010. It reveals that funding for most school districts in the state remains well below the levels it was at when the Republicans took control of the Legislature and the Governor’s office in 2011. In fact, 49 school districts statewide have lost more than half their general aid support.
This certainly holds true for most of the schools in the 24th State Senate District. General school aid for the Stevens Point Area Schools is down 11.3 percent from 2010 levels. Wautoma Area Schools are down 13.5 percent; Tomah schools are down 18.6 percent, and Tri-County schools are down 19 percent. Some of the smallest districts were hit hardest, with Pittsville Schools down more than 20 percent and Rosholt Schools down more than 30 percent. Of the 15 school districts in the Senate district, only two are receiving slightly more in general aid than they were six years ago before Governor Walker and the Republican legislative majority took office.
And make no mistake – these cuts are having an effect on our children’s education. Area school administrators tell me that as a result of the cumulative effects of years of these 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.
In the school funding compromise reached in the late 1990s, limits were placed on the ability of school districts to raise property tax levies, in exchange for the state funding a larger share of school costs. This was intended to create property tax relief. But the state has not provided the two-thirds funding it promised, leaving schools ill-equipped to deal with the massive cuts under Governor Walker and the Republican legislative majority. Across the state, more communities have voted to raise property taxes to make up for the cuts in state school aid. The number of school referendums climbed from 13 in 2012 to 35 last year. The result has been to shift more of the cost of educating our children on to the backs of homeowners and other property taxpayers.
Governor Walker and Republican legislators told us the historic cuts to public school funding were an unavoidable result of the Great Recession. But as the economy has slowly been recovering, state support for public schools has not. Instead, these leaders chose to fund massive tax giveaways that benefit the richest people in Wisconsin. Just one of these tax handouts will cost Wisconsin more than a half billion dollars over the biennium, more than twice what it was originally expected to cost. The Department of Revenue reports that 78 percent of the tax credits distributed through this program went to millionaires.
Governor Walker and legislative Republicans also found more than $50 million annually to fund unaccountable private schools, expanding the voucher program statewide and lowering eligibility requirements. The sad fact is that these leaders could have prioritized our children’s education by restoring funding to our public schools; they chose not to.
Wisconsin has to stop cannibalizing its public schools to pay for giveaways to the rich and subsidies for private schools. Our children’s future depends on our giving them the best educational opportunities we can. And the economic health of our local communities and businesses, as well as our entire state, relies on having a well-educated workforce. Our public schools are the bulwark of our children’s future, and that of our state. We have to give them our support.