Law & Courts

K-12 Budget Woes Bedevil States as School Year Hits Full Swing

Vetoes roil landscape in Conn., Wisconsin
By Daarel Burnette II — September 29, 2017 4 min read
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The school year may be well underway and teachers are already plastering their hallways with Halloween decorations, but the real fright for district superintendents in those states is whether legislative infighting will lead to midyear cuts. A handful of states’ legislatures, including in Connecticut and Wisconsin, are still bickering over how to distribute millions of dollars in education money this year.

Connecticut has gone three months without a budget and Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy last week vetoed a proposed $40 billion budget that included $1.9 billion for education. The state’s cities and towns typically get information on how much state money they can spend on schools by Oct. 1, but without a state budget, local school officials are now braced for waves of cuts. Meanwhile, the state’s supreme court heard arguments last week on whether the state’s school funding formula is constitutional.

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker recently vetoed several portions of a proposed budget passed in a special session including a section that would have provided millions more dollars to the state’s schools.

The vetoes, done for very different reasons, sent legislatures in both states back to the drawing board and left school officials there in the lurch.

School Funding Showdowns

This year’s legislative season was an especially contentious one when it came to school funding. More than half of states missed their fiscal projections, and a robust and politically powerful Republican party—which controls 32 legislatures and 34 governorships—searched for more ways to slash state spending in order to cut taxes.

With all but a handful of states having wrapped up their legislative sessions, at least 10 states—an unusually high number, experts say—have already made significant steps toward upending their school funding formulas when the next legislative cycle begins after the turn of the year.

Others aren’t able to wait.

Kansas and Washington, for example, both put in place new funding formulas this year, but their respective supreme courts haven’t yet ruled on the constitutionality of those distribution methods, enacted to satisfy judicial rulings.

Oklahoma is dealing with a $215 million midyear deficit in a special session this month, and its legislators are debating, among other things, whether to give their beleaguered teaching force a pay raise. (The teachers haven’t gotten a salary increase in more than a decade.) Oklahoma’s budget woes, fueled by a downturn in oil prices, has sparked a political clash between the state’s education community and its state politicians.

Connecticut and Wisconsin are in especially unusual—and desperate—situations.

Connecticut’s woes have lasted for years. The state, with some of the highest income disparities in the country, faces a $3.5 billion deficit due to pension debt and a shrinking and aging tax base.

This year’s budget fights have pitted political representatives of the state’s mostly poor cities against the state’s suburban politicians.

In addition, a lower court in a wide-ranging judgment earlier this year, called for the state to fix a school funding system the judge said led to an abysmal education for the state’s poor and minority students. The state’s supreme court heard testimony in the case Thursday and could rule soon on the case.

Gov. Malloy started out the legislative session this year saying in his State of the State address that 2017 would be the year that Connecticut finally put to rest years of political instability. Malloy asked the state supreme court to hold off on ruling on the state’s funding formula in the hopes he and the legislature could come up with a satisfactory, and constitutional, one by this fiscal year.

Budget a “Hot Mess”

The legislature now is months past the July 1 start of its fiscal year. Earlier this month, it sent the governor a two-year, $40 billion budget that canceled funding from several programs aimed at improving the state’s worst-performing schools.

But Malloy wasn’t satisfied, describing the budget during a press conference at one of the state’s prized schools as a “hot mess.”

“Their proposal shifts critical aid away from those that need it the most and directs it to school systems that are in a far better position to handle their challenges,” he said in vetoing the budget.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the Republican governor vetoed more than 99 line items of the budget his GOP-controlled legislature sent him last week in a special session. That includes a provision that would have allowed for school districts to raise more money from property taxes.

Members of the state’s legislature have been at odds over whether state or local officials should pay for school costs and how to close a $1 billion deficit.

Gov. Walker said on Twitter he vetoed the property tax item in order to protect taxpayers.

By allowing local officials to raise taxes, districts would be provided with up to $300 more per student within two years. Walker’s veto unleashed a flurry of accusations that he doesn’t care about the state’s schools.

“These vetoes demonstrate why Wisconsin residents feel like they’re being left behind by a Republican Party that continues to favor the wealthy over working families,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, referring to a tax change that primarily benefits the state’s wealthy.

The legislature’s Republican leaders now must decide whether they have enough votes to override Walker’s vetoes.

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as K-12 Budget Woes Dog States as School Year Advances

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