RACINE — Advocates for public education met with Representative Greta Neubauer over Zoom on Wednesday to discuss the ongoing challenge of providing quality public education without sufficient funding.
The Racine Unified School District is projecting a $34 million revenue shortfall in 2025 and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside has an immediate $5.3 million deficit and has implemented cost-cutting measures.
Yet, the historic state budget surplus is expected to be $4 billion after the budget process.
“What we have seen over the last several years, and really I would say intensified in the state budget, is lack of funding for education at all levels,” Neubauer said.
“This will have really serious impacts on the quality of education we’re able to provide young people in Racine,” Neubauer said.
Increase in education funding shared by public and private schools
While the legislature increased funding for Wisconsin’s schools by $1 billion for the 2023-2025 budget, the funding will be split between public schools and the state’s voucher program for private and charter schools.
The legislature increased funding for vouchers by $1,000 per student in K-8 and $3,000 for high school students – reportedly an estimated 40% increase in funding statewide, which brings the voucher total to $9,893 for K-8 students and $12,387 for high school students in the 2023-2024 school year.
In the 2022-2023 school year, 3,935 Racine students enrolled in private or charter schools.
Public school students, in contrast, received a $325-per-pupil increase from the legislature.
The increased funding for public schools was simply not enough and some of the state’s largest school districts – including RUSD, Milwaukee Public Schools and Madison Metropolitan School District – are projecting significant budget shortfalls for the future.
RUSD projected a $2.4 million revenue shortfall for the 2023-2024 budget. However, they were able to cover the difference with $1.6 million from the state intended for teacher retention. There was also $800,000 in carry-over funds from the previous budget that will complete the implementation of new software.
In upcoming years, however, the deficit is projected to be substantial – estimated at $34 million for 2025 and $37.95 million in 2026.
There are multiple reasons for the jump from a $2.4 million to a $34 million revenue shortfall.
- Schools have used pandemic relief funding to cover previous budget shortfalls. That funding ends in 2024.
- Schools received no increase in funding in the 2022 and 2023 school years, and RUSD received just a 1% increase for the next two school years.
- Funding for schools has simply not kept up with inflation. While expenditures for salaries, benefits, transportation and energy – to name a few – have all increased, funding has not.
Advocates accuse the legislature of manufacturing the crisis
Angelina Cruz, the president of Racine Educator’s United, told those attending the forum that the crisis in education in Wisconsin has been completely fabricated by legislators sitting on a historic budget surplus.
In reference to the budget that was just adopted by the Wisconsin Legislature, she said it was the 16th consecutive year the state’s funding for its public schools failed to keep up with inflation.
Cruz referred to the legislature’s commitment to funding private/charter schools over public schools as “funding discrimination” that has resulted “in two separate and unequal systems.”
“The children of Wisconsin have a right to a free and appropriate public education, and I would argue that right is being violated by the state legislature,” Cruz said.
She added the differences in funding are “exacerbating systemic inequalities that already existed.”
Jane Barbian, the president of the RUSD School Board, was also in attendance for the forum.
In an interview with the Racine County Eye, she said what she really wants is equal treatment in how public and private schools are treated by the legislature.
“All I want is a level playing field,” she said.
She pointed out the legislature adopts mandates for public schools that really impact the budget, but private/charter schools are not required to adopt these mandates.
Public schools, for example, are mandated to provide special education services. However, public schools only receive 33% reimbursement from the state for those services while private/charter schools accepting vouchers are reimbursed at 90%.
In the current budget, RUSD transferred $29.1 million from the general fund to the special education fund to meet the state mandate on special education services.
Barbian pointed to the new 2023 law aimed at improving literacy outcomes and expressed concern the law will become an unfunded mandate in the future, which only public schools will be legally required to fund and implement.
UW Parkside considering ways to meet funding shortfall
The University of Wisconsin system of colleges is already up against the funding wall.
Governor Tony Evers proposed an increase of $305 million for the University of Wisconsin System. Instead, Republicans cut $32 million in an attack on the system’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs, which they claimed was wasteful spending.
Without an increase to even meet rising inflationary costs, the university system was hit hard.
UW-Parkside expects revenues to decrease slightly in the 2023-2024 school year while expenses are expected to rise 9.5% (or $8.5 million). The result is a $5.3 million deficit. Staff furloughs have been implemented and vacant positions may be left unfilled while a hiring freeze is also being considered.
Professor Natalia Taft, an associate professor in the Biological Sciences at UW-Parkside, said the atmosphere there is one of fear.
She clarified she was not representing the university in her remarks. Rather, she wanted to use her experience to highlight some of the issues from her perspective.
Taft explained most of the budget goes to people and ultimately the university system will have to reduce staff to reduce the shortfall. Without sufficient staff, it is possible the UW System will have to start limiting programs.
Worse, Taft continued, programs may be shifted to other regional schools and it could impact opportunities for those students in southeast Wisconsin who cannot travel to Green Bay or Whitewater to pursue specific programs.
“Not every student is going to be able to pick up and go because we have a lot of non-traditional students, especially at Parkside,” she said.
Taft spoke about what a good deal UW-Parkside was for the students and community.
She pointed to studies that show people with higher education – whether that is a university education or tech school – will earn substantially more over the course of their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.
It has never been more important than now that people prepare themselves for the future with higher education.
“What a liberal arts education provides,” Taft explained, “are critical thinking skills, communication skills and problem-solving skills that can be applied to jobs in the future that we don’t know exist yet.”
Taft said by defunding higher education, legislators were limiting the ability of the workforce to adapt to the evolving market. She added they should be giving the people the tools to be prepared for the future.
“I can’t image anything more important,” she added.
Democrats seek funding to continue Child Care Counts
Public schools may not be the only institutions struggling in the future.
Wisconsin families may also face fewer child care options and higher rates if the funding for Child Care Counts is allowed to run out in January 2024.
Child Care Counts used federal pandemic relief funds to keep child care centers afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democrats sought $340 million to keep the program funded as the industry continues to struggle post-pandemic. However, Republicans in the Joint Committee on Finance nixed that plan.
Neubauer predicted there would be “a real crisis” for families who rely on child care without funding for the Child Care Counts program.
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