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Late Budget in Wis. Expands School Choice Options

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Wisconsin's new state budget sticks to the status quo on school funding, but bucks tradition by expanding alternatives to neighborhood public schools.

Lawmakers and Gov. Tommy G. Thompson also defied the biannual ritual of agreeing on a budget soon after July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The Republican governor didn't sign the $9.8 billion budget until Oct. 11, leaving school districts uncertain of their resources for the current school year.

The delay was widely attributed to infighting in the Senate, where Democrats hold sway by only one vote. The Assembly--the legislature's lower house--is solidly Republican. The late passage of the fiscal 1998 budget forced some districts to take out short-term loans and to postpone plans for lowering 2nd grade class sizes when school started last month.

After fierce debate over expanding the state's class-size-reduction program beyond kindergarten and 1st grade, lawmakers decided to include 2nd grade this year, increasing the allocation for the initiative from nearly $4.5 million in fiscal 1997 to more than $6.9 million this year. Thirty-seven Wisconsin districts are participating in the class-size-reduction program this school year.

But the overall $4.3 billion education budget--up 7.5 percent from $4 billion in fiscal 1997--adheres to a state guarantee to pay two-thirds of the costs of public schools and to keep strict caps on district spending and teacher salaries. Such limits are necessary to keep property taxes under control, said Rep. Stephen L. Nass, a Republican who is the vice chairman of the Assembly education committee.

"We try to satisfy all school districts, but it becomes a wrestling match," he said. "I believe the current system is acceptable."

Spending Limits

The limits on district spending and teacher salaries stem from the 1994 overhaul of the state's school aid program, which is being challenged in a lawsuit filed by more than 100 districts. The suit argues that the state distributes money inequitably, resulting in wide disparities between wealthy and poor districts. A trial court ruled in favor of the state last summer, but the plaintiffs hope to appeal the decision to the state supreme court. ("Wis. Judge Finds State's School Aid System Constitutional," Aug. 6, 1997.)

Terry Craney, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents 80,000 teachers, said the spending caps are starting to erode Wisconsin's education system, which receives high national rankings on test scores and graduation rates. Gov. Thompson used his line-item veto on a bill that would have allowed savings in employee benefits to slightly boost salaries for teachers.

"The fear that I have is that the caps on spending and salaries in Wisconsin won't be a single death blow, but a death of a 1,000 cuts," Mr. Craney said. "We find more and more schools that aren't blacktopping their parking lots, finishing their roofs, or purchasing technology. And the salary caps, over time, will mean that the best and the brightest won't be drawn to the teaching profession."

The biggest twists in this year's education budget are the expanding options for K-12 students.

One new law, pushed for years by Gov. Thompson, allows students to attend any public school in the state starting this fall, provided that there is room for them and that the students have transportation. Another new measure allows the city of Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College to start charter schools, which operate with taxpayer revenues but free of many of the regulations imposed on regular public schools.

New Options

"The whole idea is to make public schools deal with the public a lot better, because if they don't satisfy parents, they have the option to send their kids somewhere else," said Doug Haselow, the chief lobbyist for the 103,000-student Milwaukee district, the largest in the state. "Schools are going to be held with their feet to the fire."

But Mr. Haselow said the public-school-choice law won't affect Milwaukee immediately because new transfers must get behind the 3,800 children there on a waiting list to go to suburban schools. Milwaukee runs a voluntary transfer program aimed at racial desegregation, in which 5,248 city students attend suburban schools and 581 suburban children attend city schools.

This year's state budget also allocates $200 million for school technology, establishes a mandatory high school graduation test starting with the class of 2003, and requires districts to adopt academic standards by the fall of 1998. The standards may be written by the district or modeled on state guidelines yet to become final.

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