A Recipe to Fix School Funding

Andy Hall
Wisconsin State Journal
October 4, 2006
On a moonlit autumn evening, talk turned Tuesday to a “perfect storm” that might actually help Wisconsin fix its school-funding mess.
“Everything is coming together in an election year,” Thomas Beebe, outreach specialist for the nonprofit Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, told 17 Madison School District parents and activists who gathered at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center to discuss why Wisconsin schools always seem to be running out of money, and what to do about it.
The Institute for Wisconsin’s Future helped establish the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, a coalition of 122 organizations and school districts, including Madison’s, focusing on school-finance reform.
Beebe, a former official at the state Department of Public Instruction, who served on the Fort Atkinson School Board, said prospects are brighter now than any time in the past decade because increasing numbers of the state’s 425 public school districts are reporting serious financial problems because of state revenue limits imposed since 1993.
In addition, Beebe said, a state task force headed by UW-Madison researcher Allan Odden soon will recommend major changes in how Wisconsin pays for its schools, and a bipartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council panel is exploring school financing for the first time in a decade.
A top goal, Beebe said, would be to radically shift Wisconsin’s philosophy. The education budget would be based on what’s needed to adequately educate all children, including those with special needs, rather than forcing schools to make do with whatever amount of money is available through a formula.
But to make the storm happen, Beebe said, the public will need to push political candidates and public officials into taking stands – including support of controversial proposals to boost school funding by raising the sales tax, eliminating some sales tax exemptions, raising corporate income taxes, and other means.
“I think Tom is exactly right,” Barbara Arnold, a former Madison School Board president who two years ago served on a governor-appointed task force on education reform, said after the session sponsored by the East Attendance Area PTO Coalition.
Matt Calvert, a parent of a Lapham Elementary first- grader and a Marquette Elementary third-grader, said he’s pleased with the schools and their teachers, but he’s troubled by discussions of reducing a music program and increasing class sizes.
“It’s getting to the point now that it’s pinching,” Calvert said.
Madison School Board member Carol Carstensen agreed that prospects for reform are brightening, but she also warned that big changes will require sacrifice.
“There’s no real solution without additional funds,” she said.