Megan O’Halloran: Wisconsin has a golden opportunity to meet the unprecedented needs of our students
I joked in 2020 that I longed for the “precedented.” Nearly everything about 2020 was unprecedented and not in a good way.
However, I was recently filled with hope when I read that the projections for state tax collections have been revised upward by an unprecedented $4.4 billion through June 2023 in what the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum calls, “A Golden Opportunity.”
We are in an historic moment. 2020 was bleak for many reasons. In the world of education, school districts incurred enormous expenses to meet the needs of children experiencing a global pandemic. Students and staff are to be commended for rising to the challenge of a lifetime. However, instead of acknowledging and supporting students, the state’s budget committee, the Joint Finance Committee, failed to increase basic school funding and continued to underfund special education.
The justification for this failure was that districts received federal Covid relief funds. Federal aid was given on the condition that it was in addition to and not instead of routine state aid. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a memo from the Department of Education shows that Wisconsin schools are now at risk of losing $2.3 billion in federal aid as a result of the recklessness of Joint Finance Committee action.
State funding for education has stagnated in Wisconsin over the past decade. In that time, the cost of goods and services has increased. Local leaders respond to this shortfall in myriad ways. We increase class sizes. My son was one of 42 in his sixth grade class. We defer maintenance on facilities. Milwaukee Public Schools has a minimum of $200 million and to bring my students’ schools up to the quality of their peers a few miles away would take up to a $1 billion more. The opportunity gap widens for Wisconsin’s children every year.
Our communities come to our rescue. Over the past 25 years, 95% of the districts in the state have sought and passed referenda to increase local aid. Our legislators appeared ready to help in 2017 as well. Speaker Vos established the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. Over the course of a year, the commission took hours of testimony and produced a report with recommendations to better meet the needs of Wisconsin’s children.
They recommended predictable per pupil increases, substantially increasing aid for special education services, and providing support for students challenged by poverty. The commission was bipartisan, chaired by Republicans, and their recommendations were welcomed by education advocates all over the state. Despite this widespread support, the legislature failed to deliver during the state budget biennium in 2019.
The legislature can take action now. Our students may have unprecedented needs but the state has a golden opportunity to meet them. We can implement recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding report. We can close the opportunity gaps that value some students less and some students more. On June 21st, Milwaukee Public Schools will join communities across the state to call on the Legislature to seize the moment to put forward a budget that restores Wisconsin’s place as an education leader.
School Board Director – Milwaukee Public Schools