Wisconsin boosts state funding for public, private schools

Advocates have sought more pay for teachers, higher special education reimbursement and an increase in school choice voucher funding as lawmakers draft the state's 2023-25 budget for K-12 schools.

By Steven Potter | Here & Now

June 9, 2023

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As students prepare for another summer, lawmakers have decided on details for one of the most contentious and expensive parts of the state budget process – deciding the funding for Wisconsin’s K-12 schools.

Like past state budgets, everyone from education officials to teachers and parents are asking for an increase in school funding.

“I’m really scared about the state of Wisconsin’s public education system right now,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane of the non-profit advocacy group known as the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “We’ve historically underresourced our kids for 40 years now, imposing measure after measure that makes it harder and harder for kids to keep up and catch up.”

She said that some 40% of the testimony at Joint Finance Committee hearings held around the state over the spring have been educators, school board members and other state residents asking for an increase in public education funding.

“It is absolutely crucial for DeForest and all Wisconsin public schools that this biennial budget makes up for what failed to do the last time by providing schools with an adequate and recurring funds by which we can operate effectively on,” said Kathleen Davis-Phillips, director of business for the DeForest Area School District, at a committee hearing in Waukesha on April 5.

DuBois Bourenane said one of the primary problems facing the state’s public education system is a teacher shortage.

“One of the reasons that we have such a teacher crisis right now in Wisconsin is because we don’t have a system where every district can afford to provide a living wage level of pay for all educators,” she said.

According to a deal reached between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican leaders in the state Legislature, the two sides have agreed to increase education funding in the 2023-25 state budget by $1 billion.

Included in that outlay is:

  • An increase of $97 million for special education
  • An increase of $30 million for student mental health initiatives

The 2023-25 education funding package also increases money for the private school choice voucher program. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade voucher programs will get about $1,000 dollars more per school year, while high school students will get about $3,000 more per year.

Nic Kelly, president of the non-profit advocacy group known as School Choice Wisconsin, said there are many reasons why people choose private schools.

“Some people will do it in terms of academics, some will do it in terms of situations that resulted from a relationship with the public school – they want out,” he said. “Some people will do it for religious reasons, but it’s really what the internal dynamic of a family wants.”

Kelly said the $7 billion dollar state revenue surplus provides a lot of incentive for the school choice funding increase.

“Now’s the time because parents are calling for it,” he said. “It’s not an agenda of any one individual group – it’s the voice of the parents and the families across the state that want these opportunities and finding an education that is going to fit their child’s needs.”

DuBois Bourenane said an increase in school funding is the right thing to do, right now.

“What kids need is pretty simple,” she said. “And if we just put our funding priorities where those priority needs are, we could fix most of what’s wrong with how we do school funding in the state tomorrow. Let’s just do it.”

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