Most Excellent Band-Aids: Elizabeth Burmaster, State of Education and Budget Proposal

Excerpted.  Full presentation, including Madison Supt Dan Nerad, at WisconsinEye.

[SAGE section edited to correct a misunderstanding, TJM]

Yesterday, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster gave her annual “State of Education” speech and released a budget proposal which would greatly improve the state of education (press release, here).  It isn’t comprehensive reform, but the message and the proposals are very good.

In the speech, she presented “access and opportunity in public education” as “moral issues,” “social justice issues,” and as an “economic imperative.”

This strong and accurate rhetoric was accompanied by a realistic portrayal of the harm that our broken system of funding education has wrought over the last 15 years and promising budget initiatives to put Wisconsin back on the right path.

Some highlights on the state of education.

Public education in Wisconsin has been stretched to the limit. Wisconsin’s dedicated educators have been resilient in balancing the needs of today with tomorrow’s expectations….

Faced with 15 years of revenue caps and rising costs, school boards have struggled to preserve academic success and promote innovation. They have been forced into agonizing decisions to close schools, cut programs, eliminate services, and limit educational opportunities.

Public education in Wisconsin has been stretched to the limit. Is the breaking point near? Ask any one of these district superintendents. Our schools and communities can stretch no longer.

Today, I am proposing a state education budget that significantly reinvests in our PK-12 system.

These budget highlights appeared in the speech:

A budget that commits to two-thirds state funding.

A budget that brings local property taxpayer relief.

A budget that prioritizes early childhood education, small class sizes, global literacy, teacher recruitment,compensation, and repeal of the QEO.

A budget that addresses increasing child poverty and the rising cost of transportation, special education,English-language learners, public libraries, and operating small, rural school districts.

And, a budget that, for the first time in 15 years, provides real revenue limit relief for all our schools.

As always, the devil is in the details; in this case the details are good.

Restoring real 2/3 funding is huge, but for many  districts the biggest boon would be the Revenue Limit Flexibility proposal (not all — see the problems of Milwaukee, which does not tax to the limit now).  This would allow for annual per pupil revenue authority increases of $335 in fiscal year 2010 and $350 in 2011; in percent terms this moves the limit increase from about 2.5% to about 3.0%.  In real dollars (based on stable enrollments), for MMSD this alone would mean about $1.2 million more in 2010-11 than would be available if current law continued (the MMSD projections for the referendum use a somewhat lower estimate of future revenue authority).  It gets better.

There are lots of meaningful adjustments in categorical aids and other things.  I’m just going to note that there is a proposal for a significant increase in Sparsity and Transportation, which would help the “small but necassary” districts that have been struggling for years and concentrate on the SAGE, Bilingual/Bicultural and Special Education portions.

The SAGE proposal uses the phrase “fully fund.” This addresses situations like the one in 2003-4 when districts submitted reimbursements for more students than had been budgeted for.  It would entail an increase of $3.7 million the first year and about $5.4 million the second.

Tempering my enthusiasm (along with knowledge that this just the first step of a long budget process) is the increasing difficulty of districts in covering the local costs of implementing SAGE (see here), the lack of any expansion in the number of SAGE contracts and the lack of a poverty categorical aid beyond the early grades.  As many of you know, Madison and other districts have had to make some hard choices when assigning their limited SAGE contract to particular schools and many poor children in schools with 30% or less poverty rates have been left out as a result.  We are also all aware that the educational problems associated with poverty are not confined to the early grades and that many poor children also move frequently and will come to districts in the later grades without having had the benefits of SAGE funded small classes.

Bilingual/Bicultural aid rates would remain at the current 12%.  Nothing to get excited about, but in the current anti-immigrant political climate maintaining the status quo is something.

Burmaster also proposes that the basic 28% Special Education rate is be maintained and that High Cost Special Education be fully funded (in fiscal year 2008 it was prorated at 39.6%).  The first year increase in the High Cost aid is from $5.4 Million to $7.4 Million, which is significant.

There is much more here that is good — click the links at the top to explore –, but the basic, broken structures remain intact (despite a call for the repeal of the QEO).  I’d still like to see comprehensive education fiance reform, reform that begins with the question “What does quality education for all children, in each of our districts cost?, ” and finds an answer to the revenues questions next.  What Burmaster has proposed is another set of band-aids —  most excellent band-aids of the highest quality administered with great skill and expertise — but band-aids, nonetheless.

Then there is the whole matter of the Governor and the Legislature taking Burmaster’s proposal and doing what they will with it.  One more reason to elect a pro-education Assembly.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, Elections, finance, Local News, School Finance, Uncategorized

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