Unfortunately, that timeliness came at a cost. Namely, a 15% cut in funding to nearly 100 school districts, including Madison. That's $9.8 million dollars lost, and combined with the $2.8 million in other state cuts, we're talking a $12 million reduction for the Madison School District.
According to Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D-Middleton), this worst case scenario is the result of lawmakers using outdated data to make their funding predictions. They'd originally thought that cuts would be limited to no more than 10%, but just a few days after passing the budget, the Department of Public Instruction "worked up preliminary general school aids figures for the 2009-2010 school year a few days later, about 100 districts wound up with a 15 percent cut."
Not good. Not in the least.
And the news only got more glum after Pope-Roberts added, "I don't think it can be fixed...I think we're going to have to live with it."
As Forward Our Motto pointed out, Pope-Roberts is one of the good ones, working hard for meaningful education funding reform, so hearing the dire news from her may be especially poignant.
Madison School Board President Arlene Silveira has also chimed in to voice her displeasure with the way things were/are decided:
This grim situation is a result of a poor economy, outdated information used by the Legislature, and a Department of Public Instruction policy that penalizes the district for receiving one-time income (TIF closing). Federal stimulus funds will, at best, delay cuts for one year. We are left with a gaping budget deficit when many fiscal decisions for the upcoming school year cannot be reversed.There are several different theories about what needs to happen for the situation to be improved. Pope-Roberts backs the School Finance Network (SFN), which advocates, among other things:
...increasing categorical aid for children with disabilities and special needs, for small, rural school districts, and for low income students — making the system more equitable while ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn. The proposal also reconfigures how annual per pupil increases are calculated, moving them from $264 to $350 in year one, and then tying future increases to overall statewide economic growth...The plan increases state aid and expands homestead property tax relief, generating lower property taxes and providing tax relief for homeowners.Holding the Legislature accountable for fixing the system appears to be the most common theme, and indeed, their past insistence on placing caps on revenue for school funding and general disregard for the public system has certainly contributed to the current crisis.
The state Legislature has the responsibility to fully fund public education, as mandated by the state’s Constitution. There are many funding options for state leaders to improve our school funding system, including closing corporate tax loopholes, eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for companies that do not keep jobs in Wisconsin, changing the sales tax system, eliminating sales tax exemptions, and adopting strategies to increase federal support for the state.
Frankly, I've never understood arguments for less education funding. Most districts do a good job of cutting out waste and programs that don't work--they've had to, as law makers continue to strip resources from them--so we can't readily place all blame on their shoulders.
Unfortunately, then, it is too often our elected representatives who set out to slash costs, seemingly ignoring the short and long term benefits of an educated populace.
And now we may just have a perfect storm on our hands. Years and years of imposed revenue caps now combine with those "accidental" 15% cuts, and all smack dab in the middle of a recession, and it's the children who'll suffer the worst. They're about to lose essential programs (art and music are usually the first to go - but we're talking assistance for those with learning disabilities and after school programs that are often life savers for kids from lower income neighborhoods or troubled home lives).
How do we, as a state, find the money to keep all of these things, to keep up with meal programs and up-to-date textbooks, fixing leaky school buildings, paying good teachers what they're actually worth, etc.?
That's the question, isn't it. Traditionally, school funding is tied to a particular district's property taxes - but what about those areas that are less affluent? Why shouldn't kids from lower income families/neighborhoods get the same quality of education experience as those lucky enough to be born into greater wealth? They should, no question.
And that's where state money is (supposed) to come in. The problems arise when your lawmakers aren't willing to throw down the cold hard cash to keep things equitable. That should be unacceptable, but we in Wisconsin have allowed them to withhold and place limits on what can be raised for going on 15 years now. It's caused a steady and pernicious backslide in our state's national standings in things like per-pupil spending, decreasing our ability to properly meet the needs of all children.
So what do we do?
We hold the Legislature accountable by only electing those representatives who actually see through campaign promises to increase support for public education, work hard on funding reform, and place greater emphasis on the importance of public education.
We then make sure that they have as accurate and up-to-date numbers as possible with which to work when they're crafting the state budget.
We remove and/or ease overly restrictive school funding revenue caps, allowing individual districts to make decisions about how to raise money based on the needs of their areas.
We may even look into refining how property taxes are determined and used (Christian Schneider recently penned a column for WPRI that I thought offered up an intriguing plan regarding taxes, though I don't know enough of the details to say whether or not it might actually work).
Most importantly, we get back to placing a premium on the importance of quality public education in this state (and country, for that matter). Private institutions have their place, but it is crucial that we maintain access to truly great instruction for every child, no matter their financial background, location, or any other factor. Period.