Public school advocates unite after deadly budget battle

A week after the Wisconsin legislature voted in a special session on school funding called by Gov. Tony Evers without taking any action, Evers told a group of statewide public school advocates that the state budget he signed is “far where we should be” when it comes to supporting education.

Governor Tony Evers signs the 2021-23 biennial budget at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, after opposing 50 partial vetoes (screenshot | Governor Evers Facebook video)

Speaking to the Wisconsin Public Education Network Summer Summit at Sun Prairie High School on Monday, Evers said a veto on the entire budget would have compromised $ 2.3 billion in federal funding if the legislature refused to return to the table and renegotiate. “And I can guarantee you that they would not have returned,” he added. Yet the final budget was drawn on the basis of a “false choice” between investing in the needs and priorities of the state and saving taxpayers’ money.

Despite the public campaign for the signing of the Republicans’ “historic tax cut”, as well as the few vetoes he was able to secure by allocating a little more money to schools, Evers admitted to the group of officials. public schools, activists, teachers and policy experts that the end result was disappointing.

There is enough money available to reduce taxes while meeting the target of two-thirds of public funding for schools, he said. But the legislature sat on $ 550 million in education funding it had attempted to transfer to the state’s rainy days fund, refusing to act even after Evers reintroduced the money in the general fund and asked the legislature to spend it on schools. And that’s only part of the $ 5 billion surplus accumulated in state coffers over the next few years.

Instead of responding to the urgent needs of the state, Republicans in the legislature are dropping out of schools under needlessly difficult circumstances. And, as the new delta variant of COVID-19 increases the rate of infection and hospitalization, lawmakers insist that schools use federal COVID relief money to fund basic operations instead of paying expenses. linked to the pandemic.

“The answer, frankly, is fair cards,” Evers said, referring to the process of redrawing voting cards once every 10 years, based on census data that should be available this month. Wisconsin’s gerrymandered political maps have locked down a ruling Republican majority in the legislature, even when most of the statewide votes go to the Democrats. The result is that lawmakers in safe seats and gerrymanders are not responsive to public pressure.

Public Schools Superintendent Jill Underly, who spoke at the public schools event before Evers, also had strong words for the legislature.

Jill Underly, candidate for state superintendent of public education (photo courtesy of Underly)
Jill Underly, candidate for state superintendent of public education (photo courtesy of Underly)

“For the first time in my memory, Wisconsin has more than enough money to make groundbreaking investments in education,” she said, but the legislature has refused to adequately fund schools. “The legislature is telling the districts that despite the budget surplus, they will not get the money they need. “

Wisconsin schoolchildren have suffered “over a decade of austerity,” Undery added, pointing to the class of 2020, whose members, she said, “knew nothing but cuts. “during all their student time. “We are letting our children down,” she concluded.

She cited Wisconsin’s “deep commitment to public education, early childhood and higher education,” including the nation’s first kindergarten, which began in Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin idea according to which the state university system should serve the public.

“Our schools need a champion,” she said, standing in the hallway outside the auditorium at Sun Prairie High School after her speech.

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She was explaining why she released a unusually strong statement for a state superintendent last week, urging school board members, school officials and parents across the state to call on their lawmakers and urge them to heed the governor’s call to increase funding for schools.

“I have been to schools. I have seen first hand what the politicians are doing ”, she added,

She is particularly concerned about what she calls the “widespread misconception” that federal COVID relief funds can be used in place of state support, as Republican lawmakers have claimed, to fund general operations. schools.

“COVID help doesn’t keep your lights on or pay teachers,” she said, “these costs are increasing every year and there is no increase for that” in the budget of the ‘State.

Each federal COVID relief bill has been targeted for very specific spending, she explained. The first of three relief rounds focused on personal protective equipment and hygiene. The second focused on infrastructure improvements, including new HVAC systems to purify the air and prevent airborne infections. The final COVID package targeted helping children who have suffered a learning loss during the pandemic, including enrichment and tutoring programs.

Schools will be breaking federal rules if they try to spend that COVID relief money on salaries and school supplies, Underly explained. And what’s more, they need it to help solve the urgent problems created by the pandemic. “So many school districts are starting out in the red – the general public needs to understand that,” she added.

Underly agrees with Evers that redistribution is ultimately the answer for Wisconsin schools.

“Some people in the Legislature are deaf, in their own echo chambers,” she said. Because of gerrymandering, they don’t have to listen to anyone who disagrees with them. Yet, she said, “there is this silent majority of people who don’t speak out because they think it won’t make a difference.”

That’s why she urged school officials to contact their lawmakers.

“One thing people want is that they want schools to be open, face to face. The vast majority of children and parents want it. And in order to do that, we have to eliminate this virus, ”she said.

Unless the state takes common-sense measures to control the spread of COVID-19 and its newer variants, “we’re going to be caught in a never-ending cycle, and it’s not good for anyone.”

Later that day, after Evers and Underly spoke to advocates for public schools, a Fox Valley citizen panel hosted a breakout session titled “Closing the Gap with Lawmakers,” in which they discussed their efforts to communicate with their elected representatives.

The Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education discussed their meetings with five members of the assembly to lobby for funding for public schools. “In our part of Wisconsin, we have an uphill battle to weed,” said Nancy Jones, a retired teacher from the Appleton School District. The area covered by the Fox Cities group is heavily gerrymandered, with four of the five assembly districts represented by Republicans.

John Bowman, member of the Appleton School Board, spoke about how federally mandated special education costs devour the budgets of local schools. “Every year we transfer $ 23 million from general funds to special education,” he said. “So children without special needs are losing out. “

Bowman and other Fox Cities advocates described their meetings with lawmakers, who appeared friendly and agreed with them on funding for special education and other issues, including the need for more mental health services. .

A representative made the group cry, describing how he and his family had helped the family of a child with special needs. But after the meeting, he backed the Republican budget, rejecting Evers’ full funding for special education.

Another lawmaker said she was very supportive of funding mental health and shared personal stories of her work as a nurse who saw the need for better mental health care. But its support faded during the budget process.

Still, advocates said they remain committed to continuing to build relationships with their lawmakers and recruit allies to join the fight, including religious groups and other citizens concerned about the well-being of children.

Head of Keron Blair
Keron Blair (Photo | Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools)

Expanding the size and power of the pro-public-school movement was the theme of the group’s opening address by Keron Blair, the national director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, who ignited the group with a speech given on a giant screen in the auditorium via Zoom from Atlanta.

The struggle to adequately fund schools and close the achievement gaps isn’t really a financial issue, but a matter of political will, Blair told the group. “It’s not about whether we can do it; it’s about doing it, ”he said.

Defenders of public schools must make it “political suicide” not to support education, he said. And the only way to do that is to build power by recruiting more people for the cause.

“There is nothing bold or radical in saying that educators should be well paid and that children should learn the truth – the whole truth – about our country’s history and contemporary politics,” said Blair. “These are literally common sense requests. “

Well-funded schools and programs that prepare students for meaningful participation in democracy should be universal goals, he added.

“We must be unhappy with maintaining the opinion of the majority but not being able to change the policy,” he said, adding: “Our communities and schools continue to be plagued by challenges that we know how to solve. “

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