Where's the GOP Pushback to Wisc. Gov. Walker's K-12 Agenda?
If Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker officially runs for and wins the presidency in 2016 (or joins a Republican presidential administration in some capacity), the biennial 2015-17 budget would be the last one he writes for the Badger State. In K-12 policy circles, he's most famous for his successful push to end most collective bargaining rights for teachers. But some local and state officials have taken a look at what he's proposing to spend on public schools over the next two years, and have registered their opposition.
The most recent folks to do so are Wisconsin Senate Republicans, whose leader says he plans to restore some, if not all, of the $127 million in cuts to public schools that Walker proposed in the first year of his budget. In April 10 remarks at Marquette Law School, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that if estimates of state revenue rise in the latest forecast, as he expects, legislators want to restore those cuts.
"There is definitely a commitment to take care of K-12 education," Fitzgerald said.
When Walker released his budget earlier this year, district officials expecting flat state funding were caught off guard by a reduction in state aid that would, for example, cut money for Milwaukee schools by $12 million, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in February.
In his 2015-17 budget, Walker planned to eliminate the $127 million for the 2015-16 school year, or about $150 per student, but put it back into the state budget for the 2016-17 school year, plus an additional $15 million. When the budget was released in February and lawmakers initially believed that funding for schools would be flat, Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican who heads the Senate education committee, protested strongly: "I don't see how they [schools] go two years without any (new) money."
In the most recent biennial budget for 2013-15, lawmakers approved a $289 million increase for K-12 over two years, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project. However, in 2011, he signed off on a significant cut to state K-12 aid of nearly $800 million, and the legislature has also instituted lower property tax caps that have impacted districts' revenues.
More broadly for K-12, it's not clear how many victories Walker will be able to chalk up this year on the policy front. He's waffled on just how badly he wants the Common Core State Standards gone in Wisconsin, which Olsen has also criticized the governor for. It's also unclear if Walker will get what he wants for the state's slowly growing voucher program: making it available to an unlimited number of students. And generally speaking, there's a split between Republicans in the House and Senate on K-12 issues.
One more thing to consider: Walker has drawn a lot of attention, much of it negative, for seeking to cut state aid to the University of Wisconsin System by $300 million in 2015-17. Will K-12 and higher education budgets be pitted against each other as lawmakers decide if, and how, to moderate Walker's budget reductions?
Photo: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the National Rifle Association convention on April 10, in Nashville. Mark Humphrey/AP