Budget panel approves $500M more for Wisconsin schools

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin's K-12 schools would receive $500 million over the next two years, including nearly $100 million more for special education, under a Republican funding plan approved Thursday by the Legislature's budget committee.

The deal puts the Republican-controlled Legislature at odds with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers who decried it as inadequate compared to his $1.4 billion proposal but stopped short of promising a veto. The funding plan now becomes part of the state budget the Joint Finance Committee is writing and will send to the full Legislature likely in June.

Republican leaders said Evers would be wise to accept the proposal, even though it's $900 million less than he wanted, because the GOP offer is not going to substantially improve. Rep. John Nygren, the committee co-chair, said Evers and school officials knew his original $1.4 billion proposal wasn't realistic and they are happy with what Republicans put forward.

"They wanted a predictable growth in resources for schools, something they can count on, something that doesn't have to be reduced in the future because there's a downturn in the economy," Nygren said of school leaders. "I believe this accomplishes that."

The budget committee approved the proposal along party lines on an 11-4 vote.

Democrats, public school advocates and Evers, who used to be the state superintendent of public schools, all said the proposed funding wasn't enough.

"Unfortunately, the plan announced today by Republicans doesn't get us where we need to be," Evers tweeted. "I remain hopeful that I can continue to work with Republicans to give our schools and our kids the resources they need to be successful. There's still a long way to go in the budget process, but we're not going to negotiate against ourselves or our kids."

Under the Republican deal, special education funding would increase by $97 million, or less than one-sixth of what Evers wanted. That would increase the state's reimbursement rate to 26% in the first year and 30% in the second, said committee vice chair Sen. Luther Olsen. 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.

Public school advocates said they would keep up the pressure on Republicans to spend more.

"We're not above begging," said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, before the committee meeting. "We have been on our knees begging for our kids the past 10 years. We're sick of begging for crumbs. We're here to demand more of that this time around."

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.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, one of four Democrats on the budget committee, said the Republican funding increase was a "giant step backwards."

"They're still failing our Wisconsin schools, our Wisconsin families and our kids who are in special education around the state," Erpenbach 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.

"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."

Evers wanted a 10% total increase and a reworking of the state aid formula for schools, another idea Republicans rejected.

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 such as transportation and health care.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP


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