Evers proposes increase in aid to schools
MADISON State aid to Wisconsin schools would increase by $615 million over the next two years, largely paid for by redirecting money from a popular tax credit, under a proposal released Monday by state superintendent Tony Evers.
The plan would increase overall aid to schools 2.4 percent in the 2013 school year and 5.5 percent the following year. About $47 million would be used to meet specific needs of schools, such as grants to raise graduation rates and increasing funding for schools with a high percentage of non-English speaking students.
Reworking Wisconsin's school aid formula has been talked about and studied for years, but there's never been the political will to significantly change it. Evers introduced a similar proposal two years ago and tried to build a coalition of backers that included school teachers, administrators and other education groups.
But his idea died in the Legislature in the face of a roughly $3 billion budget shortfall.
Instead, lawmakers embraced Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to cut aid to schools and help fill the gap by requiring teachers and others to pay more for their pension and health care benefits. That plan also effectively ended collective bargaining rights for teachers, although a judge has declared that part of the law unconstitutional. The decision is being appealed.
Requiring school employees to pay more of their pension and health insurance costs helped save districts about two-thirds of the $451 million in reductions to school revenue last year, according to a study released Monday by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
And while the state's finances have improved since Evers last introduced his rewrite of the aid formula, his plan still faces an uncertain future.
It must be approved by the Legislature and Walker, who is currently drafting his two-year state spending plan to be introduced in February.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie steered clear of saying too much about Evers' education spending boost, calling it a "first step" that will be considered along with all the other spending requests.
Incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was also noncommittal.
"Both (Walker) and Superintendent Evers are interested in bold education reforms, and have collaborated on several initiatives already," Fitzgerald said in a statement, "so I look forward to further discussions on how we can improve educational opportunities for our children when the budget is introduced in a few months."
Evers unveiled the plan at a West Allis elementary school just three days after he announced his re-election bid for the nonpartisan seat. That April election will take place before the Legislature acts on his proposal, which likely won't be voted on until June or later.
Much like his suggestion in 2010, Evers proposed shifting a popular $900 million school levy tax credit program into the pot of money available for schools. The tax credit shows up every December in homeowners' property tax bills, and removing it would be damaging politically.
But Evers said that shift would ensure there is enough funding to keep property taxes flat over the next two years, offsetting the loss of the tax credit on homeowners' bills.
In addition to the tax credit shift, for the first time the amount of aid a district gets would be based in part on how many students receive free and reduced lunch, instead of just property values. It also would set a new $3,000-per student funding level and allow for increasing the revenue limit in each of the next two years. No increase is currently allowed.
Evers said all but 22 of the state's 424 districts would see an increase in aid. The others would be held at the current level.