Partisan gridlock may loosen to fix school funding

Partisan gridlock may loosen to fix school funding

(Wis.) After spending much of his political career on statewide education issues, Gov. Tony Evers is poised to deliver a major shakeup—revising how schools in Wisconsin are funded.

Restricted by a cap on how much can be raised in property taxes, school districts across the state are struggling with declining enrollments, cuts in state aid and growing equity gaps.

Evers, who was sworn in Monday, faces a hostile GOP-led Legislature that is still smarting over losses in November. In his inaugural speech, Evers took a conciliatory tone.

“May we dare to transcend divisiveness and party line,” Evers said. “May we have courage in our conscience. And may we be willing to do what’s best for the next generation rather than the next election.”

As a candidate, Evers proposed increasing state support for K-12 schools by 10 percent, which would cost about $1.4 billion. According to the Associated Press, the governor has said that he will include the proposal in his first budget which is due to be released before the end of March.

The state’s share of school funding has rarely exceeded 65 percent and dipped to nearly 61 percent in 2011. In the current fiscal year, the state has given schools about $7 billion or just over 65 percent.

The remaining funds largely comes from local property taxes.

But a decades-old revenue cap limits how much districts can raise from local property owners, even as the cost of providing educational services escalates.

A bipartisan task force, organized more than a year ago to look at school funding, released a report last week that recommended that school districts be allowed to adjust property tax increases based on inflation.

“My guess is they have heard what I've been hearing all this time—that the system is broken, so let's fix it,” Evers told the Journal Sentinel.

Rarely has a state’s chief executive been better prepared to take on a school funding restructuring. Appointed deputy state superintendent of schools in 2001, Evers was then elected state schools chief in 2009 and won re-election twice before defeating Scott Walker to become governor in November.

But the math of the Capitol is problematic. Republicans hold a 63-to-35 majority in the Assembly and a 19-14 advantage in the state Senate.

Partisan mistrust runs so deep in Madison that GOP leaders passed legislation stripping powers from the Evers administration in the days following his victory. And outgoing Gov. Walker signed the bill as one of his final acts.

That said, there are signs that the two sides may be able to work together on school funding.

“You don't go out and talk about school funding and come back and say 'There's too much money, let's save some,’” said state Sen. Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, chair of the education committee. “It's going to be 'We need more money.'

“I don't think any of this stuff is going to be easy,” he told the AP in an interview this week. “I would like to say the hard work is done, but the hard work is just beginning. Now the rubber meets the road.” more