Alan J. Borsuk and Amy Hetzner:
Republican leaders are saying the increase in education funding for the next two years, approved by the Joint Finance Committee and heading toward approval by the Legislature itself, calls for $458 million more for kindergarten through 12th-grade education for the next two years, a large increase that taxpayers can afford.
Democrats and a huge chorus of superintendents, teachers and school board members around the state are protesting, saying that the increase will mean large cuts in the number of teachers and the levels of service for children because it doesn’t contain enough fuel to drive the educational system the same distance as before.
At the root of the issue is an education funding system approved by the Legislature a decade ago, when Republican Tommy G. Thompson was the governor. It created a cap on how much school districts could spend each year for general operations. In general, two-thirds of that amount was to come from the state with the rest from local property taxes.
The revenue cap plan included a formula for figuring out how much the cap would increase each year. The state has stuck to the formula since then, even as battles over high taxes and school aid have escalated. The revenue cap was to increase $248 per student next year and $252 per student the following year. School districts, which are generally well along in their budget work for next year, have been using those numbers to make plans.
The budget proposed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle called for two-thirds state funding of schools, a level the state backed away from two years ago. Doyle wanted a $938 million increase in state education funding over the coming two years.
The finance committee, made up of Assembly and Senate members and with a strong Republican majority, voted, among other cuts, to reduce the revenue cap increases to $120 per student for 2005-’06 and $100 per student for 2006-’07.
The resulting $458 million increase amounts to a 2.8% increase in total school aid and school levy credits in 2005-’06 and a 3% increase in 2006-’07. But the committee’s plan would allow actual school revenue to grow by only about half of those amounts. The rest is earmarked essentially for reducing property taxes.
The Joint Finance Committee proposal would allow the average district to increase the amount it receives under revenue limits by 1.43% for next year, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction. In 2006-’07, that increase drops to 1.17%.
Some school administrators criticized both parties for political gamesmanship. They complained Doyle has been ineffective in working with Republicans, and that GOP legislators seem more concerned with backing the governor into a corner than solving problems.
“There has to be more of a middle ground here that I would challenge both parties to deal with,” said Keith Marty, superintendent of the Menomonee Falls School District. “They’re not serving the state very well with this kind of polarization.”