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In Wisconsin, a High-Pitched, Emotional Battle over K-12 Spending

wisconsin-2-600.jpgWisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat and former state superintendent who swept into office last year on a campaign promise that he would increase school spending, was under intense pressure this week to veto the GOP-controlled legislature's proposed budget, which provides just a fraction of the amount of new aid for schools he requested.

State lawmakers passed a budget that would increase spending by $500 million over the next two years, but it doesn't include many of the recommendations a blue ribbon school funding panel last year recommended, and it's significantly less than the $1.4 billion Evers originally requested.

"The legislature took $900 million out of his proposal and left a skeleton of an education proposal. It pays lip service to some areas but, when adjusted for inflation, it compares unfavorably to prior years," said Heather DuBois Bourenane, the executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

Vetoing the budget would delay state aid to the state's rural and financially struggling districts and revert them to a budget that they've long complained has been inadequate. The legislature has threatened to not reconvene until October if Evers vetoes the budget.  

"The K-12 number that we put in there is so significant that if there's no other reason that [Evers] should sign the document, not veto the entire thing, it's the money that we put into K-12," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican. 

Evers said on Twitter yesterday that he's following the will of the people.

"I've said all along that the will of the people is the law of the land, and that's what will be on my mind as I review the legislature's changes to our budget," Evers said.

Several states this month, including California, Michigan, and North Carolina, are still debating the details of their budgets. With the school year set to start in less than two months, that's caused anxiety among district leaders and teachers. Teachers have staged protests at state capitols in order to urge legislators to deliver on pay raises and overall K-12 spending. 

An Education Week analysis shows that more than 22 governors this year provided teachers with pay raises, and an analysis conducted by National Association of State Budget Officers showed that governors recommended for an additional $14 billion for schools.

Activism in Wisconsin over K-12 funding has been especially animated this year as teachers and parents attempted to use Evers' victory last fall as an indicator that voters want the state to significantly increase its share of K-12 spending. A blue ribbon panel last year recommended that the state's politicians overhaul its budget and replace it with one that provided schools more money if they serve special education students, English-language learners, and low-income students. 

As the state's legislative session came to a close and it became more apparent that politicians were going to do little of what Evers requested, activists gathered to make a 68-mile trek across the state. Marchers, who started their journey Palmyra and ended it in Madison this Tuesday, stopped along the way in small communities that have seen significant, longstanding cuts to their programs. Palmyra, after a failed referendum, decided last month to disolve the school district.

Wisconsin's funding fights, Bourenane, has "pitted neighbor against neighbor, town against town."  She said she could never imagined two years ago that she would see the state's stagnant special education costs being debated on the Senate floor, but said the state still has a long way to go.

"Parents are frustrated by the politics of this and don't understand how school funding has become such a partisan issue," she said. "I'm physically and emotionally weary ... but all too ready to take on the powers that be." 

Photo of school funding activists marching across the state, courtesy of Heather DuBois Bourenane, the executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. 

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