Rural schools fare even worse than others in proposed budget

Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Rural Wisconsin is largely Republican country. But Gov. Scott Walker’s plans for financing public schools may test the loyalty.

Polls have showed substantial support in rural areas for Walker’s successful gutting of public employee unions and slashing of take-home compensation for public workers. Public employee take-home pay has been cut by an average of 8.6 percent as a result of new requirements for funding fringe benefits.

Walker also had significant margins in rural areas both in his 2010 run for governor and in last year’s recall election.

Walker’s new biennial budget funnels the biggest percent of increases to his proposed voucher program, now operated only in Milwaukee and Racine counties. For other schools the budget provides a sliver of new money. But the heart of the school-funding plan aimed at reducing property taxes rather than meeting additional educational needs.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, re-elected this month, is blunt in his criticism of Walker’s educational spending and its impact on rural school districts. School quality is important to attract young families and in sustaining property tax values.

“More than half of Wisconsin school districts have fewer than 1,000 students and many are dealing with issues of increasing poverty levels and declining enrollment, which means they receive less state aid to educate their students” Evers said.

“We must work together to ensure that our rural kids have the same advantages as their suburban and urban counterparts,” he continued.

“Unfortunately the state budget currently being considered by the Legislature does not serve any school district well, especially rural schools,” added Evers in a statement as lawmakers prepared to review Walker’s plan.

Evers has recommended that school districts be allowed to spend an additional $225 per pupil in 2013-2014 and another $230 per pupil in the second year of the biennium. Evers said Walker’s plan to effectively freeze state aid to education leaves few options for school districts, other than cuts.

Evers’ plan also would have the state increasing aid for school bus transportation. Walker denied the request, leaving it to school districts on how to pay for rising gasoline costs.

Although both state and federal governments provide some aid for special-needs children, some of the cost is borne by the local districts. In order to meet the needs of these children, Walker’s plan to freeze money that a district may spend overall could force reductions in other programs.

In the just-completed statewide election for school superintendent, Evers was opposed by State Rep. Don Pridemore, R-Hartford, who championed Walker’s education program, including the broad expansion of the uses of vouchers as spelled out in the budget bill. Evers rolled to an easy victory with 61 percent of the vote.

Republicans control both houses of the Legislature. Some senior Republicans in the State Senate have questioned Walker’s school budget plans. State Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, has talked about a compromise, focusing more on public schools than voucher programs for private schools.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has denounced Ellis’ efforts saying the Walker voucher plan would open the door for thousands of pupils to escape some “lousy” public schools in Wisconsin. Support of the Wall Street Journal, of course, is important to those in the Walker camp who want him to run for the White House in 2016.

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