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Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as As Wis. Finance Ruling Nears, Protesters Set To Rally

As Wis. Finance Ruling Nears, Protesters Set To Rally

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More than a thousand protesters frustrated by Wisconsin's method of financing schools are expected to rally at the state Capitol June 29, after waiting months for the state supreme court to rule on the constitutionality of the system.

As it awaits a ruling in the Vincent v. Voight funding case, Wisconsin's education community is poised for a potential shake-up of the way the state pays for its public schools.

Oral arguments in the lawsuit—which challenges both the funding disparities between rich and poor districts and the property-tax caps placed on the state's 426 school districts in the early 1990s—were presented in February.

A ruling could be handed down by the time the court's summer break begins June 29, said Bruce Meredith, the general counsel for the Madison-based Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the National Education Association that is one of several plaintiffs involved in the 5-year-old case. If no ruling is made by that date, a decision could not be released until the fall.

Teri Hanson is already tired of waiting. The teacher's aide and mother of two from Phillips, Wis., is a co-organizer of the rally, along with a 240-mile, 10-day march to Madison that will precede it. The protesters' aim is to make the public and lawmakers aware of public dissatisfaction with the finance system, she said. The group plans to deliver petitions and letters to Gov. Tommy G. Thompson asking that the system be changed.

"My level of frustration on a scale of 1 to 10 is 10," Ms. Hanson said. "It is so obvious to people working in schools and to parents who send their kids to schools that this is not working. Yet, when we talk to the government, they don't see the problem."

Funding Burden Shifted

In an attempt to reduce property taxes, Wisconsin lawmakers agreed seven years ago to shift much of the burden for paying for public schools to the state. Under the 1993 legislation, the state agreed to pay two-thirds of the costs of public education—an increase from 42 percent in previous years. At that time, lawmakers froze spending at 1992-93 levels to ensure that the state could provide its share of the funding. They permitted districts to increase their budgets by about $211 per student each year to provide for inflation, and limited teacher salary and benefit increases to 3.8 percent annually.

Districts wanting more funding must ask voters directly for the money through local referendums. If the voters agree to hikes, the state is obligated to cover its share of the increases.

Proponents say that the system works because residents pay for services rendered in their own communities. They also argue that revenue caps ensure that the state can afford to meet its obligations while giving voters power to increase funding.

"Wisconsin, as a whole, is a very equalized state," said Randy Romanski, a policy analyst for the state attorney general. "There are a very tiny fraction of outlying districts that do have more funding [than others], but those are accidents of geography and economics."

But the suit contends that the finance system should be thrown out because it does not meet a provision in the state constitution requiring the state to run a system of public education that is "nearly as uniform as practicable."

"Property taxes as a source of school revenue are neutral as far as we're concerned, but if the legislature chooses property taxes, then it has to make the necessary adjustments to take into account substantial variations in tax bases," said David J. Hase, the litigation counsel for the Association for Equity in Funding, an organization based in Milwaukee that filed the original lawsuit against the state in 1995. Plaintiffs include 104 districts from across the state, school administrators, teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers, he said.

Caps Seen as Harmful

Under the current system, communities that collect less in property taxes have less money for financing schools than do those that raise more, Mr. Hase said. Though the state currently provides poor districts with some money to help level the playing field, it does not provide nearly enough to erase the inequities between rich and poor, he argued.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council intervened in the case in July 1996 and, along with taxpayers, children, and parents, is contending that the revenue caps undermine districts' ability to educate students who are disabled, have limited ability to speak English, or come from poor families.

The revenue caps have been most harmful to districts with declining enrollments or increasing populations of children with special needs, Mr. Meredith said. The situation has been exacerbated, he said, by a statewide open-enrollment program that allows students to enroll in schools outside their home districts and a publicly funded voucher program that helps low-income students in Milwaukee attend private schools.

The state's system of mandatory tests in grades 5 and 8 also means that districts must provide expensive remedial aid to those who do not pass the tests, Mr. Meredith added.

A study of 321 superintendents across the state during the 1998-99 school year, conducted by the WEAC and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed were dealing with the revenue caps by delaying building maintenance or improvement projects. Nearly 60 percent reported that they were delaying or reducing the purchase of computers and other technologies; 56 percent had cut back on buying textbooks and other curricular materials. Fifty percent of superintendents said they had seen their class sizes increase.

The state contends that the school funding formula is fair. Districts that need extra cash can ask the voters, Mr. Romanski said. "School boards choose to spend more on a local level through the local-referendum process," he said.

But districts cannot rely on referendums because voters do not pass them, said Darcy Luoma, the senior education outreach specialist for the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, a nonpartisan policy-research group in Milwaukee. Only 25 percent of state residents have school-age children, she noted, meaning that many do not feel they stand to benefit by raising taxes to pay for schools.

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Pages 24-25

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