On Tuesday, the state Superintendent released the biennial budget request for Wisconsin’s schools. The budget asks for a state funding increase of 10%. That’s a bump of nearly 1.5 billion dollars for fall 2021 through spring 2023.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) enrollment in public schools across the state is down by more than 25 thousand students, compared to fall 2019. That’s a nearly 3% decrease. The enrollment decrease is significantly larger for younger students. Enrollment in four-year-old-kindergarten has dropped 16%, while regular kindergarten enrollment has dropped 5%. DPI attributes the decrease largely to the Covid-19 pandemic, citing safety concerns and difficulties with distance learning.
The newly released budget proposal asks the state to overlook that drastic dip in enrollment and increase state aid by ten percent in the next biennial budget. That’s a total budget of 8 billion dollars next year and nearly 8.5 billion the following year.
Deputy State Superintendent Mike Thompson says low enrollment this year can greatly impact districts for several years because funding is calculated on a rolling average of enrollment. “School districts should not be penalized in their basic needs of operational funds because of a pandemic–because the pandemic caused a disruption in enrollment numbers,” he explains. “We’re simply saying use the greater of 2019 or 2020 whichever is greater in the enrollment calculation, because it’s more reflective of what numbers would have been had we not had the pandemic.”
The budget request also asks the state to reach a commitment of providing 2/3rds of funding to public schools, with the other third coming from local communities. Thompson says achieving 2/3rds funding has been a goal for decades. “This budget really looks at holding those property taxes the same. It doesn’t raise property taxes but yet it allows more of an investment in the education of our kids, especially our most challenged kids where the greatest needs are,” he says. “And it’s a cost the state incurs, it’s not on local property tax.”
Property taxes across the state will be rising to pay for schools, as many communities approved referenda on election day. In Dane County alone, voters last week approved referenda in 6 communities to raise more money for their public schools.
Also in the budget is an increase in funding for four-year-old kindergarten programs–that’s the optional grade before kindergarten. Currently, those youngest students, who attend school all day, only count as half a student when it comes to funding. Beginning fall 2022, they could be counted as a full student.
Mental health resources are also vastly increased under the budget request. Thompson calls mental health support critical to students’ abilities to learn. “That is going to be even more pronounced coming out of the pandemic, because of the trauma of the pandemic and the social emotional needs of kids not being around school,” he elaborates. “We asked for an increase in several areas around mental health: increase in the state supporting pupil-services staff within in school buildings, an increase in a grant program that allows school districts to collaborate with mental health providers to provide services to kids, and some money in the budget to provide more training for teachers. These are huge challenges for kids that impedes their ability to reach their full outcomes and learn.”
Under the DPI budget the state would also be on the hook for more special education costs. The department is requesting an increase of $371 million for special education categorical aid and $13 million for high cost special education. New grants introduced in the budget include a program to make meals free to all students on reduced lunch programs and an investment in “out of school time” programs. (That’s similar to an after-school, but could happen at any point of the day that isn’t during school hours.)
Some conservatives have come out against the budget request. The Wisconsin Chapter of Americans for Prosperity called the budget “bloated and nonsensical” in a press release.
However, Thompson says Governor Evers and the state legislature will have to analyze their priorities when finalizing the budget. “There is no greater investment than the children of this state. These are necessary investments to help kids achieve,” he stresses. “Yeah, we’re in a pandemic and everyone is suffering from the pandemic including the learning loss of kids. So we think a long-term commitment to continue to support the kids in the state is the right way to go.”
Governor Evers will send his budget to the legislature early next year.