Friday, October 17, 2014

As rural schools have it tougher, Walker cares even less

A couple more bits of information out in the last couple of days starkly illustrate how rural Wisconsin schools are being left behind in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, and it's interesting to see these events and stories hit ahead of the election.

Earlier this week, the Department of Public Instruction gave their finalized aid amounts for this school year based on enrollment numbers (you can click for your district here). And while there were some minor modifications to what had been projected earlier this Fall, the tale is largely the same- most school districts in Northern and Western Wisconsin are looking at aid cuts for this year, and many above 10%. (I'll gladly take the updated version if someone has it, but it pretty much looks like this)

The pro-Walker Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel tried to spin this situation with a headline stating "52 percent of Wisconsin districts will get an aid increase." But many of these increases barely cover inflation, and the silver bullet of one-time Act 10 savings has already been used in almost every district. With many districts looking at lower aid amounts for at least the second or third time in the last four years, Wisconsin Public Radio looked into this issue in greater detail, describing the squeeze many of these smaller districts are feeling.
Schools in small, rural towns across Wisconsin are struggling. Enrollment is declining, poverty is rising, and transportation costs are considerable.

Jerry Fiene, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, says that limited school funding has exacerbated the situation.

“Really for the last 20 years since the revenue limits went into effect, rural schools have been faced with significant challenges in being able to maintain the programs and offerings that they're providing for their students,” he said.

The current school funding formula places a lot of emphasis on enrollment and property values, meaning that when rural districts lose students, they also lose money. Fiene said that often the only good choice they have is to appeal directly to local taxpayers.
And that explains why there might be more than 80 referenda questions on the November ballot across the state related to school funding- in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, these schools have no choice but to ask the voters to raise property taxes to merely keep operating as they are. And money that could offset those property tax increases for schools is instead being used to give tax cuts that have not created jobs, but instead merely led to a looming budget crisis due to exploding deficits.

And we found out today that Governor Walker won't take even the smallest step to help alleviate this situation. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan sent out a press release describing how negligence in the Governor’s Office will cost many districts a better chance to fund and improve preschool programs.
Last week, Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-02) sent a letter, with Reps. Gwen Moore (WI-04) and Ron Kind (WI-03), urging Governor Walker to apply for a Preschool Development Expansion Grant. Unfortunately, Governor Scott Walker failed to submit an application before Wednesday’s deadline depriving Wisconsin of up to $60 million for preschool programs. Since taking office in 2010, Governor Walker has turned down or ignored federal grant opportunities to expand Medicaid for 87,000 Wisconsinites, to expand high speed internet service for schools, to build a high speed rail system between Madison and Milwaukee, and refused to increase the amount of heating assistance given to people in poverty resulting in cuts to Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“I’m very disappointed Scott Walker has put Tea Party politics ahead of doing his job as Governor,” Rep. Pocan said. “Playing political games with these federal grant opportunities, while neglecting our infrastructure, ignoring our most vulnerable citizens and running up a projected $1.9 billion deficit is inexcusable. Too many people from Wisconsin are being left behind as Walker prioritizes his higher ambitions.”
And a whole lot of those people live in small towns where the schools are being underfunded. In addition to the fiscal irresponsibility of not trying to get tens of millions of dollars in federal aid to help pay for these programs, improving pre-K education is a move which often pays strong dividends in improving the quality of education as those children get older. In many cases, strong public education and the sense of community those schools generate is all those places have going for it. We used to identify institutions like schools as a key part of the fabric of life in Wisconsin, and it sure seems to be in danger of slipping away under this crew.

In addition, the underfunding of rural schools and shifting of more and more taxpayer dollars into the failed voucher program shows how little the Walker Administration understands or even cares about people who don’t fund their campaigns. I sure hope the residents of the rural areas that are being screwed over by these regressive privatization and defunding policies keep this in mind when they go to the polls in 2 ½ weeks.

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