School funding in Wisconsin is complicated.
In the past several decades, local school districts have turned to referendums to meet their financial needs. They also receive funds from the state and the federal government, most recently in the form of federal coronavirus relief aid.
It’s a lot of money going in and out the door, and a lot to keep track of. Now, Wisconsin’s lawmakers are proposing a bill that seeks to simplify tracking that money.
The bill, which was before an Assembly committee today, would require the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to make schools’ financial data more easily accessible. That would be accomplished via an online digital portal, where anyone would be able to drill down to find specific financial information.
The legislation currently has no Democratic co-sponsors. It previously earned the approval of the state Assembly, but died in the senate when last year’s legislative session ended early.
Sen. Mary Felzkowski, a Republican from Irma and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, says the proposal wouldn’t place any additional strain on school districts, as they already report all the relevant data to the DPI.
“This is information that DPI already collects from school districts, and there will be no new reporting requirements for our schools,” she says. Felzkowski says the bill also takes into account input from the DPI.
“At its core, our bill is about transparency and access, and about every taxpayer, parent, teacher, reporter, school board member and legislator who has at one point or another found our school funding data difficult to comprehend.”
Exactly what financial info the portal would provide is still up in the air. Per the legislation, it could include info on pension and health care costs, pupil transportation and school administration — among many other categories.
The bill calls for an eleven-person committee to hash out those details. That committee would provide a recommendation on the exact form and content of the portal by 2023.
The portal would also collect data from charter schools, with the exception that “doing so is feasible without collecting any additional information from independent charter schools solely for this purpose.”
The legislation earned near unanimous support from the Assembly’s Government Oversight Committee today, with Rep. Jodi Emerson — a Democrat from Eau Claire — as the lone vote against.
Speaking with WORT after the committee’s meeting, Emerson said she was open to changing her vote if the legislation gets to the floor. But, she says the current version of the proposal was rushed through committee without being fully fleshed out.
“I find it ironic that we’re dealing with a bill about transparency but in such a rushed manner. It’s really unusual for us to have a hearing and an executive vote the same exact day on the same bill,” Emerson told WORT. “I might change my vote when it comes to the floor, but the fact that it was fast-tracked through the committee process is always a concern for me.”
The senate version of the bill heads to committee tomorrow.
Also during their meeting today, the Oversight Committee approved a piece of legislation banning training involving Critical Race Theory for Wisconsin’s state and local government employees. That bill, which passed committee 6-3 along party lines, is companion legislation and functionally identical to a bill that seeks to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Wisconsin’s schools.
PHOTO: Jonah Chester