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WI School Funding Agreement Doesn't Ease Concerns of Rural Districts

school bus on rural road picking up children
Cheryl Casey - stock.adobe.com
school bus on rural road picking up children

Wisconsin education leaders are reacting to a budget deal that provides some extra funding to public schools but also increases support for private school vouchers. Rural districts are left wondering whether they can survive current obstacles. The budget agreement hammered out by Republican legislative leaders and Democratic governor Tony Evers boosts overall public education spending by $1 billion , and there is nearly $300 million set aside for the state's school choice plan, which provides money to low-income students to attend private schools.

Jeff Eide, executive director of Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance said public schools were not given enough support to keep up with challenges.

"The challenges we're really facing is really bottom-line resources and funding for the rural schools," he explained.

He added the situation was made worse by a GOP led decision in the last budget to freeze education spending. A recent survey from the alliance found more than 70% of rural schools were short at least one educator. Teacher unions also are voicing concerns, saying more of the surplus should go to public schools. But the Wisconsin Coalition for Education Freedom said the move makes the state a leader in empowering parents.

Eide said public schools, especially in rural areas, remain hamstrung in boosting their finances because of a 30 year old state law that imposes revenue limits for districts. That means they have to go to voters more often by way of a local referendum.

"You're always asking for the taxpayers to either keep the taxes where they're at when they could be lower, but you need that for the resources for your kids. So, it's difficult to go back and sometimes it divides the community a little bit," Eide continued.

The budget plan does boost the revenue ceiling, but those advocating for public schools say it falls well short of keeping pace with inflation, and spending increases for special education are minimal, Eide said. The funding agreement came together in a budget cycle where policymakers were figuring out how to make use of a nearly $7 billion surplus.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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