State education chief and gubernatorial hopeful Tony Evers wants to put an additional $1.4 billion into public education over the next two years. The proposal is part of the Department of Public Instruction’s request for the 2019-2021 state budget.
Evers, a Democrat, heads the agency as state superintendent. The spending plan comes in the middle of a tight race between Evers and incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.
Much of the proposed funding is focused on the neediest students and the districts that serve them. There are major spending increases proposed for special education, mental health support, and bilingual education.
“We’ve been using the word ‘transformational’ for a reason,” DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy says. “We feel like we need to do something about education spending.”
The $15 billion two-year budget includes an emphasis on the five largest school districts (Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay and Racine Unified) in an effort to close persistent achievement gaps. That includes Wisconsin’s black-white student achievement gap, which is one of the worst in the nation.
Walker and Evers have sparred over the achievement gap, each blaming the other for not doing enough to address it.
The DPI’s McCarthy says this time, the department asked districts what they want to do to tackle disparities.
“We have gone to the communities where this work is going to take place and said to them ‘What would you need?’” he says. “’We are here to design some items around you and your needs, convince us how this is important and show us how it would move the needle.’”
The result is a bundle of initiatives that include incentives for teachers to work in high-poverty districts, full funding for four-year-old kindergarteners, and money for community partnerships to address outside-of-school issues like housing instability.
Chris Thiel sees the proposals as positive steps. He’s the legislative policy manager at Milwaukee Public Schools, where more than 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.
“We have discussions years after year about our achievement gaps,” Thiel says. “And if we want to make sure that we’re doing something about that, we have to see this kind of focus.”
Thiel points to another part of the budget that could target achievement gaps, specifically those in math scores. DPI would provide up to $12.5 million to resurrect the Milwaukee Mathematics Partnership, a program to enhance math instruction. The program was previously funded by a state grant that ended in 2013.
There is another piece of the budget that could be particularly meaningful to MPS. And it isn’t money.
Evers is proposing an end to the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Programs. The program was designed with MPS in mind. It creates a new governance structure for failing school districts. MPS was at risk of a takeover in 2016 but avoided it with improved test results.
The DPI says the OSPP program has been ineffective and should be repealed.
However, MPS’ Thiel says the single most impactful proposal is probably the one focused on special education funding.
School districts have increasingly shouldered the burden of climbing special education costs. State funding has stayed flat, at about 26 percent reimbursement, for a decade.
This budget would more than double the state’s special education reimbursement rate to 60 percent.
“Moving the reimbursement rate up to 60 percent would be hugely meaningful in terms of restoring programs for kids both in special education and regular education,” Thiel says.
The fate of this spending proposal is particularly political. It needs to go through the governor. If Walker retains his seat, he’ll be making decisions about a spending plan created by his opponent. If Evers wins, he’ll be reviewing his own proposal.
And Walker has his own education funding ideas. He wants to put $20 million into a ‘career creator’ program that among other things, expands youth apprenticeships to middle school. Walker is also proposing $1,000 annual tax credits for college grads to stay and work in Wisconsin.
In addition to the governor, the Legislature will have to approve the education budget.
If lawmakers are inclined to follow voter sentiment, they may consider a recent Marquette poll that found a majority of Wisconsinites favor increased spending on education.
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