Republican leaders in the state Senate and Assembly have endorsed a $500 million increase in K-12 school funding over the next two years, lawmakers announced this week.
The package would include a $50 million increase in special education funding in each year of the biennium, or $100 million total. The plan closely mirrors one that Republican released last year, which Gov. Tony Evers called a "pro-kid budget."
That said, Democrats say it's not nearly as pro-kid as Evers's own education budget proposal, which would boost total education spending by $1.4 billion over the two-year budget cycle, and spend $600 million more on special education.
At a press conference to announce the Republican plan, Assembly majority leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said the focus of the budget proposal is to funnel dollars directly into classrooms.
"Something that everyone can agree on is that successful students today lead to a successful future for Wisconsin," Steineke said. "As has always been the case, investing in Wisconsin students and schools is a top priority of mine."
The Assembly Republican plan creates a $200 increase per pupil in the first year, and an additional $204 per pupil in the second year of the budget, with a majority of these funds being directed into classrooms. In addition, Steineke said the budget would return the state to its commitment of two-thirds funding of K12 schools.
"At the start of the year, we committed to continuing to invest in and prioritize our students, and this budget proposal makes good on that promise," he said. "Just as we approved a historically pro-kid budget during the last budget cycle, Assembly Republicans are ready to do so again."
The proposed education plan also increases funding for mental health programs, Steineke said, while high-cost transportation would be fully funded, with funding targeted toward rural schools.
State Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) said the proposal would fund schools at two-thirds for the first time since the requirement was eliminated under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
"Last session, my colleagues and I promised to make a historic investment in K-12 education to ensure that schools across the state would receive the funding needed to give every child a great education, a budget that Gov. Evers said was a 'pro-kid budget,'" Rodriguez said. "Today we are following that up with a budget that increases support in areas of need and follows through on our commitment to fund schools at two-thirds,"
Rodriguez said the new funding plan comes on top of a $636-million investment in education in the last budget, and that the increase in special education amounts to a healthy 13 percent boost.
"Special education funding has remained flat over the last decade and in talking with my schools they both asked for more funding for special education and mental health," she said. "This proposal delivers in both of those areas of need."
Democrats want Ever's budget plan
Democrats on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee said the proposal was simply a Republican plan to continue to underfund schools.
"After eight years of historic cuts, the GOP is heading down the same path of prioritizing special interests and the wealthy above the kids in our state," the Democratic lawmakers said in a statement. "Even though we currently have the lowest level of special education funding in Wisconsin's history, Republicans announced a massive cut to the program compared to the People's Budget. On the other hand, Democrats have listened to the families, kids and advocates of our state, and recognize the importance of funding this program and investing in the future of Wisconsin."
The Democrats serving on the JFC are Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), and Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee).
Erpenbach said the GOP was simply backfilling the deep cuts the party made during the eight years of former Gov. Scott Walker's tenure, and doing that only half-heartedly.
"Whether the GOP is cutting special education by 91 percent or 84 percent, it's still failing our kids," Erpenbach said. "Republicans' lackluster attempt at filling the hole that they created is not fooling anyone. The GOP has spent the last eight years cutting programs, and putting the burden on property taxpayers. The People's Budget would reverse that trend and fully fund education."
Johnson said the state should be concerned with providing future generations not only with the ability to survive but the opportunity to thrive.
"Investing in a quality education for every Wisconsin child, no matter their zip code or family circumstance should be a top priority," she said. "The comprehensive investments the governor included in his education budget such as mental health services and special education investments are what Wisconsinites asked the governor and Legislature to include in the state budget."
Goyke said Evers's budget would guarantee a world-class education to kids in every corner of the state and of every ability.
"The Republican decision to deny these needed investments, after years of inadequate funding, is a generational mistake and shows a clear difference in the two parties," he said. "Democrats proudly stand with our kids; they deserve nothing less."
Taylor said Republicans had turned Evers's kid-friendly budget into a budget for politicians.
"They refuse to make the investments Gov. Evers proposed that the vast majority of people in this state, from all districts, supported," she said. "Once again the Republicans' priorities are not the priorities of the people of this state."
Evers addressed his education proposal in his weekly radio address, saying it was no secret that education was in his DNA.
"I've had a chance to serve the kids of this state my entire career, working my way up from a high school science teacher to the state superintendent and now governor," Evers said. "From seeing firsthand the impact a high-quality education has on Wisconsin's kids, I can confidently say that what's best for our kids is what's best for our state."
The governor said his budget proposal would ensure that schools have the funding they need, and that kids who need an extra lift can get that extra lift.
"It's time to recommit to investing in our kids, our educators, and in K-20 education across our state, because every kid deserves a high-quality, public education - from early childhood to our universities and technical colleges system - regardless of their ZIP code," he said.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce