Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Governor's rural school proposals are nice, but too little and far too late

1 week after its rollout was delayed due to a scathing audit on the Wisconsin DOT a cold from Governor Walker, we finally got to hear about the Guv's plans for rural schools in the 2017-19 budget. So let’s go into Gov Walker’s plans, and see what they do.

The first major initiative has to do with aid to the smallest, most remote school districts in the state.
Increase Sparsity Aid by $20 million. Governor Walker's budget increases Sparsity Aid by $20 million ($12.3 million more than DPI requested). This makes for a total investment in Sparsity Aid of $55.4 million over the two-year budget. Governor Walker's budget will also increase the per pupil reimbursement rate for districts that previously qualified for Sparsity Aid to $400 per pupil. Sparsity Aid is for small rural districts that have less than 745 pupils and a population density of less than 10 pupils per square mile of district attendance.

·Expand Sparsity Aid. Governor Walker's budget will create a new $100 per pupil tier of Sparsity Aid funding for districts with 746-1000 pupils. This buffer will provide more stability for school districts that fall just outside the 745 pupil requirement.
As alluded to, this builds on the State Superintendent Tony Evers’ budget request by giving $100 per pupil above the DPI’s request, and agrees with Evers’ request to make larger districts eligible for $100 a pupil in aid. This is important as 2016-17’s sparsity aid fell below $300 a student when too many schools/students qualified (the payment was just over $291).

Overall, this is a good proposal at a relatively low price, and deals with the lack of population and tax base that makes funding schools an extra challenge in rural Wisconsin. The next agreement Walker has with DPI on this rural public school package is along the same lines.
Provide 100% reimbursement for rural school districts in the High Cost Transportation Aid program by investing $25.4 million over the two-year budget. This is an increase of $10.4 million over the last budget. Created in the 2013-15 State Budget, High Cost Transportation Aid provides additional transportation funding to school districts with a density of 50 pupils per square mile or less and per pupil transportation costs totaling more than 150% of the state average. The 2015-16 reimbursement rate was prorated at roughly is 60%.
On a related note, Walker is backing DPI’s request to give extra funding for long-distance and summer school pupil transportation, and at a combined cost of $10.5 million, it is a relative drop in the bucket for a K-12 education budget that is set to go over $3 billion a year.

A couple of other Walker proposals in this release are repeats of broadband expansion items he has promoted before.
Increase funding for Teacher Training Grants through Technology for Educational Achievement (TEACH) by $22.5 million. This will allow more school districts to apply for grants for allowable costs of training teachers to use educational technology.

oThe budget also will include a provision to allow districts to apply for TEACH grant funding for mobile hot spots on buses and mobile hot spots for students to take home. Access to high-speed internet is particularly challenging in rural areas. When combined with school laptop computers, taking mobile hot spots home allows students online access outside school hours for homework. The hot spots can only be used for homework, and entertainment sites such as Netflix are blocked….

·Increase the Broadband Expansion Grant Program by $13 million. Access to fast and reliable high-speed internet remains out of reach for too many Wisconsin families and communities, and this continued state investment will help connect more rural communities.
This isn’t actually new money, but is redirecting money from the state’s Universal Services Fee to specific purposes (i.e.- the opposite of a block grant), and we've heard a version of this proposal before. But if it improves things, you can see where it could work - leaving aside the fact that WE COULD HAVE DONE THIS YEARS AGO with stimulus money that Walker turned down upon taking office in 2011.

Another idea allows teacher’s aides and other staff to use UW’s online “flex option” to develop a program that allows those workers to become full-time teachers. It seems half-baked and there’s no price tag associated with it, unlike a DPI request to earmark $5.5 million to help rural school districts offer competitive pay, benefits and professional development to teachers (a big problem with small districts is attracting and maintaining talent).

But what I don’t see in Walker’s rural schools proposal is any mention of changing the current revenue limitations that K-12 public schools are under. Yes, this type of categorical aid is exempt from those revenue limits, but the largest part of the DPI budget request involved adding funds for all public schools and reforming the revenue limits to allow districts to invest more resources into their underfunded schools (currently, many schools can’t compete for talent or improve services due to the revenue limits, or they have had to go to referendum to raise property taxes to do so).

This means that I am going to wait for Walker’s budget to come out next week to find out if any increase in general aids or reforms to revenue limits are included. If not, then the other 2/3 of Wisconsin’s school districts are going to be left to struggle while the smallest schools get their concerns taken care of, and I’m betting that won’t go over well in suburban Milwaukee, Madison, and the mid-size cities in the state.

And Senate Dem Leader Jen Shilling (who represents several sparsity aid districts in southwest Wisconsin) reminds us that a lot of these Walker proposals are transparent pre-election moves that are “too little, too late.”
“Public schools are the heart of every community and Democrats are committed to restoring state funding, lowering property taxes and giving Wisconsin children the education opportunities they deserve,” added Shilling. “We need to restore the $1 billion in state aid that has been cut from our schools and put an end to Gov. Walker’s tax breaks that benefit millionaires and companies that outsource Wisconsin jobs.”

In most Wisconsin communities, state aid for local schools remains below funding levels from 2010-11. The three communities Gov. Walker is visiting today have been particularly hurt by Republican school cuts. Over the last five years, the Wauzeka-Steuben School District has seen a 12.4% state funding cut, the Hilbert School District has seen a 16% state funding cut and the Crandon School District has seen a 33.9% state funding cut.
This is the right tact to take- point out that these moves are an admission by Walker than he and the GOP are losing on this issue, and that their prior cuts to rural schools are failed policy. While these proposals are nice and would make things better than they are now, it still doesn’t let Republicans off the hook for screwing things up in the first place.

As mentioned, let’s see if any of this even becomes law as budget deliberations continue, and how it fits into the larger picture of K-12 education funding in the state. This is especially the case if the rosy revenue projections provided by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau fail to become reality. The 2017-19 budget is already tight, and with Assembly Republicans claiming they want to cut taxes by $300 million a year, there may be very few revenues to spread around. It makes you wonder if the relatively small investments that Walker is proposing to try to get headlines today will be the first things to go in the coming months.


  1. I'd like to think they're coming around at least out of self-preservation, but if they're giving with one hand, they're usually taking back with another.

    I'm hoping somewhere to hear a Democrat say that US schoolteachers making too much money is NOT one of our major problems.

    1. Agree on both fronts. Especially with Walker trying out this "Reform Dividend" meme, let's remind people what the REAL cost of these policies have been- like 110,000 jobs fewer than we should have, and the worst economy in the Midwest since Walker and WisGOP came to power.

      I highly recommend keeping an eye on the rest of the DPI budget, to see if other schools also get helped like Evers requested (don't count on it).