Support for local schools is powerful political fact

Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Scott Walker took issue with some news coverage of his administration during a recent gathering of newspaper editors, part of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association annual convention in Madison.

After running through key elements of his biennial budget bill, Gov. Walker seemed to gently chide the members of the Wisconsin Associated Press Managing Editors group, noting controversial issues often get more press coverage than issues in which is there is general agreement. And since newspapers are more capable of providing continuing, in-depth coverage of an issue than are television and radio newscasts, governors think a lot about newspaper coverage.

Radio talk-show hosts, popular with some segments of Wisconsin residents, for the most part run their programming from a platform of personal opinion and boosting ratings for their stations. And rarely do the hosts come from a news-reporting background.

Sitting governors of either political party often take issue with newspaper coverage when news is reported not in keeping with their "messaging." They are accustomed to people standing and applauding when they enter a room or when they are introduced. They want to talk about their favorite ideas, not those which have stirred controversy. So when governors have an opportunity to share their thoughts with newspaper editors, they usually seize the opportunity.

Walker is correct about reporting on controversy. Those issues tend to get more newspaper attention than "every day" news because more lives are directly affected and the public-policy issues more far-reaching. The recently passed mining bill is an example. But public school funding in Walker's budget could directly affect more people as well as the governor's reputation.

The governor is asking the Legislature for an additional $117 million to expand vouchers for charter schools in nine additional cities.

Perhaps more important on a statewide basis is Walker's call for continuation of existing revenue limits on local public schools. The additional $129 million in school aids he has proposed could largely turn into property tax reductions.

Any tax reduction may be widely popular in Tea Party circles. It certainly would be a plus for any national political hopes that Walker may harbor for 2016. He believes Wisconsin will prosper if taxes can be cut.

But public schools are caught in a squeeze. The federal payroll-tax vacation has ended, translating into a return to higher costs to employers and less take-home pay for employees. Health insurance costs continue to climb. Gasoline costs will pinch transportation costs.

The criticism which has popped up in daily and weekly Wisconsin newspapers shows citizens are worried about the future of their local schools. That's especially true in the 40 percent of largely rural districts where enrollments are declining and impacting the state aid formula.

Smaller communities - including many residents without school-age children - rally around and identify with their public schools. The high school athletic programs and the academic and sport success of their students are centerpieces of hometown pride. It does not matter whether a town gives a majority of its votes to Republicans or Democrats; people support their local schools.

Walker's school revenue cap proposal seemed a bit of a surprise. State School Superintendent Tony Evers had proposed a 2.3 percent increase in revenue limits for school districts in his budget request to the governor. That would have allowed about a $320 per pupil increase in spending by school districts.

Some hint the governor is just replaying his union-busting war against teachers. Walker won the war when he won a recall election last year. That recall election victory is a key reason conservative national pundits talk about him for a spot on the GOP 2016 ticket.

In the world of elections Evers is seeking another four-year term in next month's statewide voting. He is opposed by a conservative Republican legislator, Don Pridemore of Hartford, who says changes are needed in Wisconsin education.

Two Republican legislators have proposed a compromise nearly half way between Evers and Walker. Their idea would allow a $150 per pupil increase in the revenue formula. The Evers-Pridemore election has the potential to impact the debate.

Equally important in their decision-making will be editorials and newspaper coverage of the potential education budget impact on their communities. It clearly will be easier to understand than deadlock on the federal budget.

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