New commission seeks school funding formula overhaul


School aid is up dramatically in the new budget, but lawmakers are looking deeper amid conflict with Gov. Scott Walker over money to rural schools.

A new legislative commission – the first ever – is now seeking to overhaul the state’s school funding formula.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald touted the commission’s formation, saying it’s time to make updates to better meet the needs of students.

“The school funding formula was first created in the 1970s, and a review hasn’t been done in 20 years,” said Vos, R-Rochester. “Times have changed, state demographics have changed, and of course, schools have changed; it’s time to examine the way we pay for schools.”

“Every child should have access to a quality education in Wisconsin,” said Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. “With declining enrollments in more than half of the state’s school districts, a thorough analysis is necessary to ensure the process is transparent, equitable and delivers excellent schools today and in the future.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding will be led by co-chairs Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, and Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. It will examine how tax dollars are distributed to schools and make recommendations to better meet the needs of students across Wisconsin.

The launching of the commission comes after approval of a state budget that means a big boost in school aid. K-12 aid will grow 8.3 percent over two years to nearly $6 billion, the largest biennial jump since 2005-07, when it rose 9 percent, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Behind that boost were some disputes among Republicans. Assembly Republicans put a package in the budget to boost low-spending school districts by allowing them to collect more in property taxes. But Walker vetoed the plan due to his concerns over the impact on property tax bills.

Instead, Walker later called on lawmakers to pump more state money into sparsity aid, which help small, rural schools. A plan authored by state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, mirrors the sparsity aid package Walker first included in his budget and carries a price tag of $9.7 million.

Vos said the budget makes a historic investment in public schools and pointed out Assembly Republicans had a different approach to helping rural districts than the governor.

“We’re not going to go back and re-argue all of the battles we had in 2017 in the spring of ’18,” Vos told earlier in the fall. “For the most part, that issue is put to bed, and we’ll have the opportunity to come back in the next budget and discuss sparsity aid and lowspending school districts.”

In addition to the co-chairs, the commission will feature seven members of the Legislature and seven education experts, including superintendents from Green Bay and Grantsburg, two representatives from Milwaukee-area Catholic schools, a UW-Madison professor and a member of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

The lawmakers are: Sens. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills; Marklein; Dem gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma; Reps. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago; Romaine Quinn, R-Rice Lake; Sondy Pope, D-Mt. Horeb; and Jason Fields, DGlendale.

The commission was to hold its first meeting in December, according to a statement from Vos and Fitzgerald. It will then travel around the state to hold public hearings starting next year, before making recommendations to legislative leaders before the end of session.

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