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K-12 Funding Emerges as Big Concern in WI Budget Talks


Thursday, June 17, 2021   

MADISON, Wis. - Public-school advocates say they're alarmed about the education spending levels being floated in the Wisconsin Legislature - and one nonpartisan group says badly needed COVID-relief funds are at risk.

The Joint Finance Committee could wrap up its budget-writing process as early as today, ahead of votes later this month. The GOP-controlled panel has already endorsed an increase of $128 million in K-through-12 funding.

But Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said it isn't as promising as it sounds.

"It provides a zero-dollar increase to new spending for most districts throughout the state," said Dubois Bourenane, "and all districts in terms of increasing revenue limits or getting spendable dollars into classrooms."

Republican leaders argue the plan sets aside more funding for schools to address such areas as mental health, and that states also get federal COVID-relief dollars for education.

But advocates and the U.S. Education Department warn Wisconsin risks becoming ineligible for the extra funding, since the state wouldn't commit to required education spending levels.

Critics of the budget proposal think it also puts too much into a rainy-day fund, instead of giving schools direct access to the money.

Dubois Bourenane said the loss of federal aid would be devastating for districts trying to make their buildings safer as they recover from the pandemic. She also called out Republican leaders for aiming for lower levels of reimbursement of special-education costs.

"We have never been in a position to heal some of the wounds caused by past budgets like this before," said Dubois Bourenane. "Why wouldn't we do it?"

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called for a higher threshold, as well as overall education spending of 90% more than what the committee endorsed. Dubois Bourenane argued the current plan would force districts to ask voters for local tax increases to cover the gaps.

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