Just last week, the Senate Education and Corrections Committee met to hear testimony from education leaders and perform a checkup on the state of education following the first year of major cuts. The conclusions from the committee were that the cuts were in fact real and they hurt. There was overarching, bipartisan agreement that we need to fix a flawed public education funding formula.
For many years now, legislators and education leaders have agreed that the school funding formula needs to be revamped. Because of the extreme cuts in the last biennium it is all the more imperative that we no longer put off this task.
School districts are required to balance their budgets and they took drastic steps to absorb the cuts, but not without impacts to quality. We cannot continue on this course, there needs to be a reprioritization of public education in our state government.
Governor Walker and Republican legislators cut education by $1.6 billion over the biennium. These were the largest cuts to state aid for public education in Wisconsin history. In the same budget Republicans provided 2.3 billion dollars for corporate special interests over the next ten years. Clearly education was not a priority.
During our recent hearing, former Racine Unified Superintendent Jim Shaw and his colleague, Dr. Carolyn Kelley from UW-Madison’s Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis Department briefed senators on their research demonstrating how the cuts in Act 32 disproportionately hurt poor school districts more than rich school districts.
Our state’s flawed funding formula exacerbated the effect of the cuts. Schools struggling with poverty, declining enrollment and transportation costs were the hardest hit in the new aid adjustments.
Most importantly, Senator Bob Jauch reminded all of us at the hearing that our State Constitution unequivocally guarantees public education for all Wisconsin citizens and support for our school districts must be as uniform as possible. The disproportionate cuts not only hurt our children’s education statewide, but they also raise constitutional questions for how our state ensures school districts remain uniform. We need to refocus our attention not only to sparing our children’s education from destructive cuts, but we also have to relook at our state’s school funding formula.
Many school districts have been setting aside money for a rainy-day fund in case the state cuts general aid or any other unforeseen event, but now many of them have dipped into those funds and the threat of bankruptcy looms. Even school districts that had large "rainy day" accounts years ago have now exhausted their reserves because the state aid part of their budget has dropped so precipitously.
A silver lining found in last week’s hearing was that members on the committee acknowledged a bipartisan middle ground. Republicans and Democrats can agree that our current funding formula is broken and needs to be fixed. It is time to dust off Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers’ “Fair Funding for Our Future” proposal and begin to help our struggling schools.