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Wisconsin Panel Proposes $900-Million Increase in Aid to Schools

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The Wisconsin Governor's School Finance Task Force, in a report that calls for sweeping changes in Wisconsin's school-aid system, has proposed a $900-million hike in state aid to local districts over the next two years.

The task force, which was established last fall by Gov. Anthony S. Earl at the request of the state superintendent of public instruction, Herbert J. Grover, has also called for a 1-percent increase in the state's sales tax to finance education and $50 million in incentive funds for low-income districts.

The report has been submitted to Governor Earl, who is expected to incorporate at least parts of it into his legislative budget request next month.

Specifically, the panel was asked to address the nature of the state's responsibility to finance public education, the appropriate level of state aid, the principles used to direct the distribution of general and categorical school aid, and the procedures and formulas by which aid is awarded, according to the Governor's order.

"We imposed a generous interpretation on the extent of our mission,'' said Dennis Conta, chairman of the task force and president of Conta & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in policymaking studies and governmental affairs. "But we would not have done so if we did not think it was in the spirit of our charge."

"Both the Governor and the superintendent of public instruction feel there ought to be a far greater linkage between increased state financial support and higher performance standards and higher academic expectations," Mr. Conta added. "Our task force simply felt that performance funding in a variety of ways should guide the development of future state support."

Adjustments Needed

The group's report contends that, while Wisconsin's educational problems are not as serious as those in many other states, there must be "adjustments, re-evaluation, and renewed effort and commitment" to address such problems as falling test scores for college-bound high-school juniors, high dropout rates, and the large number of young people who leave high school lacking basic skills.

The report adds: "Many of the most serious educational problems continue to be centered in school districts with large concentrations of lower-income students and racial minorities. The problems and needs of these districts clearly require larger resources, stronger standards, and more effective teaching methods."

General Aid

The five-member task force has recommended that in the 1985-87 biennium, the state "go as far as possible within fiscal constraints toward adopting as a reasonable objective" the funding of 50 percent of the costs of elementary and secondary education. That recommendation would raise funding by almost $900 million, according to Nancy Wenzel, the Governor's education adviser.

Wisconsin currently provides 39.5 percent of its 433 school districts' costs. Mr. Grover has indicated that he would like to reach the national average, a 52.4-percent state share, in the next biennium.

Governor Earl has not yet submitted his budget to the legislature, which convenes in January, but he plans to "keep an austere budget with reform of the income-tax system and state aid to education," according to Carolyn Stroebel, a spokesman for the Governor.

"His budget will probably talk about an increase of state aid to schools [with the] state paying 41 percent to 42 percent rather than the current 39.5 percent," she said.

According to Ms. Stroebel, the Governor believes the 50-percent figure is "a worthy goal to work toward," but impossible to achieve in one biennium.

Sales-Tax Increase

The task force has also proposed adding 1 percent to the current 5-percent sales tax as a means of generating additional general-purpose revenues that would permit an increase in school support.

Ms. Stroebel said the panel's proposal to raise taxes will not receive much support from the Governor or the legislature. The state sales tax was raised a year and a half ago, she said, from 4 percent to 5 percent, and "it's a political reality in the state" that the citizens were not pleased with the increase. In addition, she said, the Governor "does not want to do tax shifting in terms of cutting income tax and turning around and raising sales tax."

Accountability Requirements

Along with increases in state aid, the task force has recommended that districts be required to meet new mandates on educational quality and accountability. If, after three years, districts fail to satisfy those requirements--including a written K-12 curriculum, comprehensive student testing, full public disclosure of performance, and minimum course requirements--the state superintendent would be required to withhold a portion of their state aid, according to the report.

That section of the panel's plan, Ms. Stroebel noted, is not likely to be supported by Governor Earl because he favors incentives over measures that punish districts for failing to meet requirements.

Low-Income Students

The school-finance panel has recommended additional resources and incentive funds for elementary grades in districts with proportionately higher numbers of low-income students.

Mr. Conta said he expects the legislature to allocate $25 million yearly for the program, which would put disadvantaged children from preschool to the 5th grade in small classes stressing the basic skills.

"There is a growing appreciation of the educational crisis that exists now in large, urban areas such as Milwaukee," Mr. Conta said. The underachievement of children from low-income families has become a growing concern and is likely to receive legislative support, he said.

Other Recommendations

The task force has also recommended that the state continue categorical aid for handicapped students, but adjust the reimbursement rate to reflect the relative property wealth of school districts; encourage districts to pass on some school-aid increases as property-tax relief rather than devoting all to in-creased spending; and improve methods for assessing and equalizing property values to enhance taxpayer equity between and within school districts.

In addition, the task force suggests, the state superintendent should develop specific recommendations for reorganizing and consolidating districts with the goal of improving educational quality and efficiency, and the state should provide a financial incentive to districts that reorganize.

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