Friday, October 21st, 2016

Education funding dominated decade


(This appeared in the Waukesha Freeman 12/31/09)

Education funding dominated decade

   If we were to look for one issue that has dominated Wisconsin politics for much of the decade, education would have to be near the top of the list. How we fund it and how we provide it are the issues that dominate election after election.
   Education issues dominated in Waukesha, too. For much of the last decade, the debate was about how much we spend on the schools. One spending referendum passed, another was shot down, and the school board talked about other referendums that never took place.
   Perhaps no election was more indicative of how much education spending mattered when school spending advocate Ruth Page Jones challenged state Rep. Bill Kramer. Certainly Kramer’s success was in part the result of his willingness to directly confront education spending issues.
   Waukesha has been at the center of the debate of how education is taught, too. Waukesha’s IQ Academy is the second-largest public charter online school in the state. The school was in danger when a lawsuit by the teachers union threatened to close the state’s online schools. The Legislature intervened, but the price of caps on enrollment meant waiting lists and children being turned away.
   Back in 1994, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson proposed the state take over two-thirds of the state’s K-12 education funding. To keep costs contained, local school district spending was capped at a rate near inflation. Teacher salaries were limited by the ability of the local school district to offer a qualified economic offer, an increase in salary and benefits of 3.8 percent that would let the school districts avoid arbitration.
   Two-thirds funding by the state has always been a struggle, and the last biennial budget missed by quite a bit at 62.6 percent.
   The state’s equalization of aid formula prevented Waukesha from receiving two-thirds of the district’s funding from the state. Residents of the Waukesha School District are actually net donors into the state’s school funding pool.
   Even before the last election cycle, advocates of increased school spending attempted to make Waukesha ground zero in the fight over the school funding formula. However, they were unable to gain any traction when it was consistently pointed out (including by Democratic State Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts) that any change in the state’s school aid equalization formula would come at Waukesha’s expense.
   With the arrival of Superintendent Todd Gray, talk of referendums ended but the reforms he proposes, including the closing of some schools, have generated controversy, too. But even as Gray has proposed making the school district more efficient, school property taxes have continued to climb.
   The Waukesha School District made a long overdue decision recently to bid out for the teachers’ health insurance instead of contracting through the state teachers union. It comes, however, at a time when relations with the union may become more contentious.
   The last state budget finally caved in to the teachers unions and did away with the QEO. A cynic might point to studies by the Waukesha Taxpayers League that showed teacher salaries in the district went up above the QEO levels. However, the QEO did represent some salary restraint, even if the teacher salary table made the overall annual salary increases larger.
   Wausau is already seeing the effect of the end of the QEO. There, the teachers union is proposing increases that may result in some teachers getting increases of more than 7 percent.
   The last restraint on school property taxes is the spending caps. Gov. Jim Doyle announced right before Christmas that, if Wisconsin is successful in its application, he would use federal “Race to the Top” funds to reward school districts that make some suggested reforms. However, the new money would be to fund new spending obligations, and these new spending obligations would be paid for by lifting the spending caps.
   Ironically, school districts like Waukesha that heard from the taxpayers and made reforms would now be the same school districts that could see large increases in their property taxes to pay for the new spending.
   So we’re ending the decade in worse shape than when it started when it comes to containing education spending. Look for education to continue to dominate Waukesha’s politics well into the next decade.
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