August 25, 2023

Ruth Conniff: Wisconsin’s public schools and the war on democracy

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It has been a rough year for Wisconsin’s public schools. Usually an ally, Governor Tony Evers has been less helpful, and the state’s budget for education once again has failed to keep up with inflation.

“I feel like the governor is caught in a bad spot,” Underly added. Evers had to negotiate a deal with Republicans who were threatening to withhold shared revenue funds from Milwaukee, potentially plunging the state’s largest urban area into bankruptcy.

“It’s all part of politics and negotiation,” Underly said. “I do feel bad for the schools, because we got little, on top of no increase in the past.”

Although the budget deal does allow most school districts to levy an additional $325 per pupil from local property tax payers, that just “puts the burden back on the local districts to make up for that revenue rather than the state,” Underly said. And the state’s failure to meet public school demands that it cover at least 60% of the cost of special education — an expense that is devouring school district budgets, leading to program cuts in other areas — was  a “missed opportunity,” Underly said, given the huge budget surplus. “I do feel strongly that our public schools lost out again.”

As for the big increase in taxpayer money going to finance private schools through the voucher expansion Evers signed as part of his deal with Republicans, “It’s hard to swallow,” Underly said, “because, really, we can’t afford two school systems.”

In just two years, all the enrollment caps will come off the school voucher program in 2026 and the problem of supporting two school systems, one public and one private, from the same limited pool of education funds, is going to get even worse.

“I think there’s going to be a reckoning,” Underly said. “I think the people in this state are going to have to do some soul-searching and really answer the question: What future do they want for public schools and kids and communities? Do they want a system that serves everybody? Or do they want to have two systems where the one that serves everybody keeps shrinking?”

That pretty much sums up not just the battle over the future of public schools in Wisconsin this year, but all of the struggles over the future of democracy in our state and around the country that suddenly seem to be coming to a head this year.

Are we going to have a society where we come together around shared values and common interests, or are we going to continue to break into increasingly isolated, hostile camps, tearing down our shared institutions, and leaving individuals and families on their own to grab what they can for themselves?

The Wisconsin Public Education Networks’ slogan, “Public Schools Unite Us” captures the more optimistic of those two roads.

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