MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature have agreed on a $500 million increase in K-12 school funding over the next two years, including $100 million more for special education, a member of the budget-writing committee said ahead of a key vote Thursday.
Senate and Assembly Republicans reached the deal that the Joint Finance Committee will vote on later Thursday, said Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican who is on the panel and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the former state superintendent of public schools, proposed a $1.4 billion increase over two years, with $606 million for special education. Assembly Republicans announced Wednesday they would spend $500 million total, with just $50 million for special education.
But Olsen said under the deal, special education funding would increase by $100 million. That would increase the state’s reimbursement rate to 26% in the first year and 30% in the second, Olsen said. It would be the first increase in more than a decade and addresses complaints from schools about a lack of funding that requires them to tap general aid money to pay for more expensive special needs students.
Olsen said school board members, business managers and superintendents who deal most intimately with budgets will be happy with the Republican funding level.
“They knew from the get-go what (Evers) was saying wasn’t realistic,” Olsen said.
The Republican plan would increase per-pupil funding by $200 the first year and $204 the second, paid for with a mixture of categorical aids and revenue limits. Olsen said the goal was to keep property tax increases at no more than 1% each year. Under the Evers budget, property taxes were projected to go up about 2% each year.
The GOP plan also increases funding for mental health services and revenue limits for low-spending districts.
Olsen defended the $500 million total, even though it falls $900 million short of what Evers wanted. Evers was calling for a 10% total increase and a reworking of the state aid formula for schools, another idea Republicans were rejecting.
“I think it’s just right because if you look at the money we have to spend in the budget, this is the lion’s share,” he said. “I would love to (spend $1.4 billion), but I know we’re not going to be cause we can’t. This is the best we could do.”
The Republican proposal is a “mixed bag,” said Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
“The typical school district will find a lot of good things in this budget, but that’s not to say that every district will be in great shape,” he said. “What I had hoped is the governor’s budget would generate a serious debate and unfortunately the Legislature didn’t want to have serious debate about the direction we’re going and they more or less wanted to continue with the status quo.”
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling reacted on Twitter, saying “Gutting investments for students and classrooms while continuing tax breaks for the wealthy and special interests is the worst they can do.”
That elicited a response from Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who emphasized that the GOP plan was “ADDING hundreds of millions of dollars to the current education budget of $11.4 billion, a budget that (Evers) called “pro-kid” and a “significant” investment.”
Evers made those comments in reaction to the 2017 budget when he was state schools superintendent.
Republicans have the votes to approve the plan with no Democratic support.
Evers’ spokeswoman had no immediate comment on Thursday. But the governor, in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio on Wednesday, urged patience on education funding. He met with Republican legislative leaders Wednesday and said he was confident they could work together on school funding.
The budget committee is working to reshape Evers’ budget, including education funding, before sending the revised plan to the full Legislature for approval. Evers has powerful line-item veto authority to rework the plan and has held out the possibility of vetoing the entire budget.
Education funding is the single largest item of state spending in the budget, currently taking up about a third of all money allocated. Reaching agreement on how much to spend there will help lawmakers navigate the rest of the budget and how much money is available to spend on areas like transportation and health care.