Doyle Races for the Top and One Reaction (and one more, updated)

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle held events around the state today to tout the work being done on the Race to the Top application.  You can read the press release here and reports here and here (more on AMPS in the coming days).

The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools was first out of the blocks with a reaction. WAES notes that this set of proposal comes at a time when districts around the state are raising property taxes and cutting programs.

Governor Jim Doyle has introduced a plan to exempt from revenue limits school districts that meet specific criteria. The plan does recognize the need for change in the funding system, but it fails to address the crisis our schools find themselves in and doesn’t start the fundamental restructuring of our school finance laws that is so badly needed.

“While we appreciate the governor’s efforts to address the problems, the plan just doesn’t get the job done and continues the trend of shifting the responsibility for funding schools onto local property taxpayers,” said Kim Suhr, co-founder of GrassRoots of Waukesha County and a member of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).

“The fact is that the way we fund schools is broken. Wholesale reform of school funding is needed now─reform that benefits both children and their communities.”

First, however, Wisconsin needs to quickly reverse the trend of declining public school aid started in the 2009-11 state budget. In total, 336 school districts lost over $175 million in general aid, a cut of over 15 percent for many communities and 10 percent or more for 181 districts.

“After 15 years of cuts to programs and services under the present funding system, that is unacceptable,” Suhr said. “The best way out of our current economic downturn is to graduate the best trained and educated young people possible from our schools. Decreasing that investment in public education is heading in the wrong direction.”

As a matter of fact, in his announcement today, the Governor had many good arguments for a longer school year, longer school days, and many other suggestions for better educating children. We need to have discussions about the educational merits of those proposals, but in many case such changes will require additional funding.

The WAES statement points to confusing fact that the programs proposed in this scramble for approximately $80 million in one-time federal funds cost money, money that districts do not have because the recent state budget included lower revenue caps, a cut in state funding of $535 million over two years, and increased the school levey credit by $352 million (the levy credit is called “state aid” by Wisconsin, but not a penny goes to schools).  The first step toward educational excellence has to be getting state support to the level it should be.

WAES also has an idea for that, a Penny for Kids dedicated sales tax.

To address the crisis by getting needed revenue back into schools as soon as possible, WAES has proposed “Pennies for Kids,” a plan to increase Wisconsin’s sales tax─one of the lowest in the country─by one-cent. Suhr said that will raise about $850 million a year that could be used to educate children and lower property taxes in every community in the state (2009 Wisconsin Act 28, 2009-11 State Budget; Summary Tables and Charts, July 22, 2009).

A discussion of the Governors proposals could be good for education in Wisconsin.  Whatever reforms are eventually enacted and whatever the result of Wisconsin’s Race to the Top application; if there aren’t provisions for adequate, equitable and sustainable investments, all the good ideas in the world won’t make a bit of difference (see what is happening with SAGE for an example).  A Penny for Kids could make  a big difference.  Pennies add up.

For an AMPS post on an earlier version of the Governor’s proposal, see here.

Update

The School Finance Network has  issued a statement.  SFN also zeroes in on the lack of attention to needed educational investments.

Earlier today, Governor Jim Doyle proposed exempting school districts that meet specific criteria from revenue limits. While the governor’s proposal reflects Wisconsin school districts’ need for greater flexibility, it falls well short of the fundamental restructuring of our school finance laws that is so badly needed.

“While we appreciate the governor’s efforts to address the problems with school funding in this state, his proposal simply papers over holes in the current funding plan and continues the trend of shifting the responsibility for funding schools onto local property tax payers,” said Jill Gaskell, Legislative Liaison, Wisconsin PTA. “Wholesale reform of school funding is needed now – reform that benefits both children and their communities.”

….It is important to note that revenue limits were brought in as part of the state’s commitment to funding two-thirds of the costs of schools. Over the years, that support has decreased considerably, creating a situation where the cost of schools has been increasingly shouldered by local taxpayers.

“The state continues to pass the school funding buck to local property tax payers,” said Gaskell. “The governor’s plan simply speeds that process up.”

Allowing for greater property tax increases is not only bad in theory, in practice very few districts will be able to take advantage of the offer. With the recent shift in education investments from state aid to local property taxes, more and more districts are already unable to reach their revenue limits. This situation has become so pronounced that Assembly Bill 461 has been introduced to make sure that districts that go under the limit are not punished with lower limits in future years.

SFN closes by pointing to the advantages of their proposals

Instead of piecemeal reform and the continued burdening of taxpayers, a statewide coalition of educational and community-oriented organizations, known as the School Finance Network (SFN), is suggesting that structural reform of school financing should be made now.

The School Finance Network has identified flaws in the current system and its plan bolsters efforts to comply with the Vincent v. Voight court ruling, which requires the state to take into account districts with disproportionate numbers of disabled students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with limited English language skills.

SFN has determined that overall annual increases in allowable funding fail to keep pace with real world costs over which school districts have little to no control, such as utilities and transportation. By crafting proposals to fix these flaws, the SFN proposal will allow school districts around the state to maintain coursework in art, music, foreign language, business, and vocational training, all of which are now being cut, providing children with high quality education for which this state has a proud tradition.

More in the coming days and weeks.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Arne Duncan, Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, Uncategorized

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