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Wis. Conferees Appear Close on School-Finance Overhaul

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Wisconsin's Democrat-controlled Assembly and Republican-majority Senate appeared late last week to be near agreement on a proposal to dramatically change the way the state pays for its public schools.

As the two sides met in a conference committee, they were described as converging on a plan to increase the state share of education funding by nearly 70 percent, while reducing the amount of school revenue derived from property taxes by a third.

Widespread dissatisfaction with the state's property-tax system and the example set by neighboring Michigan's dramatic switch from local to state revenues for education have "helped influence those who may have been skeptical or opposed'' to the tax plan, said David Patrick de Felice, the press secretary for Speaker of the House Walter J. Kunicki. (See Education Week, March 2, 1994.)

But lawmakers had only until the end of last week, when the legislature was scheduled to adjourn, to reach a compromise.

'Geography Is Destiny'

Wisconsin's heavy reliance on property taxes has long been a source of controversy in the legislature and a sore point for the education community, especially in financially burdened cities and poor rural areas.

Rep. Shirley I. Krug, a Milwaukee Democrat, noted in a recent speech that only 10 states rely on property taxes more heavily than her own. Currently, state officials said, per-pupil spending ranges from $5,000 to $13,000, while property-tax burdens vary dramatically as well.

"We believe we have a 'geography is destiny' means of education in our state,'' Ms. Krug asserted in an interview last week. "A child's access to equal educational opportunity should not be determined by where he or she lives.''

Ms. Krug is a sponsor of a House-endorsed constitutional amendment that would guarantee "adequate'' state funding to public schools. Observers give the proposal only a slim chance in the Senate, however.

On another front, the Association for Equity in Funding, an organization representing 141 districts, or about a third of those in the state, is considering filing a suit to challenge the existing school-funding system. The state supreme court narrowly rejected a similar challenge in 1988, but leaders of the new effort note that the composition of the court has changed and that disparities in funding have worsened.

Union Doubts

In opening this year's legislative session in late January, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson proposed doubling state aid to schools.

Speaker Kunicki and Sen. Robert Jauch, the minority leader, soon weighed in with a plan to take public schools off the property-tax rolls entirely and establish a commission to come up with new sources of state revenue.

The proposal quickly drew fire, however, from the Democrats' powerful traditional allies, the state teachers' unions. Union leaders expressed skittishness about the prospect of a complete elimination of property taxes as a funding mechanism.

"We would like to have at least 60 percent state funding, but would like to leave some local control through property taxes,'' said Mary A. Braithwaite, the president of the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers.

With the Republican Governor's backing, Sen. Michael G. Ellis, the majority leader, proposed using funds from a state budget surplus to help districts through a two-year property-tax freeze. During that time, a commission would devise alternative tax recommendations to put before voters in a 1996 referendum.

The compromise being eyed last week would reduce the amount of school revenue derived from property taxes from the current $3 billion to $2 billion in 1996. To take up the slack, the state's share of school funding would increase to about two-thirds, to be generated by state tax increases suggested by the commission.

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