Wisconsin Public Education Network: Public school supporters organize after JFC midnight attack

For Immediate Release

Contact: Heather DuBois Bourenane, Coordinator,
Wisconsin Public Education Network,
[email protected] (608) 572-1696

Sun Prairie, WI

80 percent of Wisconsinites demand increased public-school funding,
but receive money laundering scheme in Tuesday JFC vote

“Our public schools are the heart of our communities. Our legislators have not listened to the majority of people in Wisconsin who believe in their local public school and who asked the Joint Finance Committee to fund our public schools first. Those of us who want to support the public schools we love in Lake Mills will continue working with citizen groups across the state to advocate for quality public education for all children.”

These words from Sandy Whisler, President of Citizen Advocates for Public Education (CAPE), a grassroots education advocacy group in Lake Mills, sum up the renewed spirit of resolve to organize to defend public school students shared by Wisconsin Public Education Network partners. The Joint Finance Committee voted against the will of the vast majority of Wisconsinites Tuesday night, pushing forward a budget that both underfunds public schools and includes many unpopular and unvetted items that will harm our communities, including statewide voucher expansion, a new formula for allocating voucher dollars that drains public-school budgets faster than ever before, a special needs voucher plan and a takeover of vulnerable urban public schools.

While Network partners applauded removal of the reckless proposal to create a state chartering authority from the budget and reject the cuts requested by the governor, the “increase” proposed last night doesn’t go nearly far enough in meeting the needs expressed by districts around the state, especially given the inclusion of statewide expansion of the private school tuition voucher program.
As a statewide coalition of education advocates, including parents, board members, administrators and nonpartisan community groups, Wisconsin Public Education Network is deeply disappointed that the omnibus bill contained so many items that never received opportunity to be discussed or debated by the public and those who know and care most about public schools: parents, board members, and education professionals.

“The latest polls show us that nearly 80% of Wisconsinites support full funding for public schools,” said Wisconsin Public Education Network coordinator Heather DuBois Bourenane. “This is clearly not a partisan issue. It’s disappointing to see a party line vote that rejects the will of the people by creating the illusion of an increase in public school funding through a money laundering scheme that essentially siphons tax dollars directly into private schools through expansion of the voucher program that Wisconsin citizens so clearly oppose.”

More Money for Vouchers

The last-minute introduction of a new formula for counting private school voucher recipients under the revenue limits for a given district means that many districts – especially rural districts that do not participate in the statewide voucher program – will see cuts to funding, and that more money will come off the top of the education budget. Changing the funding structure to include voucher students in revenue counts impacts all districts, but rural districts and those without voucher schools will be hit particularly hard by this provision.

“Despite the provisions in the budget bill that were designed to address the devastating cuts to rural schools experienced over recent years, this proposal will again siphon millions of dollars from rural property taxpayers in every corner of the state to fund unlimited private school vouchers and educational policies that undermine our public schools,” says Network partner Jerry Fiene, resident of Prairie du Sac and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Rural Schools.

Fiene adds that “a revenue limit freeze in both years of the budget will force many rural schools to either go to referendum or eliminate more educational opportunities for our students.”

Given that 40% of referenda failed this spring, the outlook is bleak for many rural school districts already underfunded through years of revenue caps and declining enrollment.

Jeri McGinley, member of School Funding Reform for Wisconsin, a grassroots advocacy group from Stevens Point, added

“Our community was among the first to experience the statewide voucher expansion two years ago, and even before that we were watching our public schools struggle – art and music programs were disappearing, student fees and class sizes were increasing. Things haven’t gotten any better for our public schools, and now we’re told more money will be taken from our public schools to fund even more private school vouchers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is heading.”

Under the already-expanded statewide voucher program, DPI enrollment data shows that over 80% of vouchers go to children who were already enrolled in in private schools, and applications from public school students who want vouchers was down 20% this year. Only 526 of nearly 875,000 public school students statewide applied.

DuBois Bourenane asks, “Who’s asking for this? We didn’t hear parents stand up at the JFC’s public hearings and say ‘we want our schools to pay for more vouchers.’ Why must struggling districts pay the price of an expensive entitlement that Wisconsin doesn’t want and can’t afford?”

Special Needs Vouchers

Network partners have also shared deep concern over the inclusion of two controversial items that have been strongly opposed by education advocates: Special Needs Vouchers and a proposal to phase in takeover of high-poverty schools in Milwaukee. Both measures target our most vulnerable student populations.

Joanne Juhnke, of the parent-led organization Stop Special Needs Vouchers, explains her concerns:

“Special needs vouchers are risky for the students who take them and lose all their special education rights and protections in the private school, and harmful for the vast majority of students with disabilities who remain in the public schools while the funding siphons away.”

Milwaukee Public Schools takeover

WPEN member Angela McManaman, President of Parents for Public Schools-Milwaukee, was incredulous over the inclusion of a proposal to take over Milwaukee Public Schools that has never had a public hearing:

“Taking control of chronically underfunded schools in neighborhoods struggling with childhood poverty, unemployment and crime is not an equalizer for these schools. The MPS-takeover bill targets neighborhoods and families that need stability in education.

“A bill that could boost student achievement and promote academic stability is one that offers communities good-paying jobs, gets a record-high number of illegal guns off the streets and promises our kids schools filled with teachers, books, student art and a curriculum that prioritizes critical thinking instead of over-testing.

“This midnight MPS takeover bill offers none of the above.”

McManaman goes on to share concerns about the secrecy of these actions, and calls on Wisconsin citizens to take action:

“In final dollars and cents — and after much of last night’s proposed increase is allocated to private schools statewide through vouchers — it is clear that Wisconsin continues to be a national leader in cutting funds to public education. That’s our new legacy — from a national leader in ACT scores and high-school graduation rates to a national leader in defunding public schools.

“Imagine if you were an elected official — would YOU wait until 1 a.m. to pass the legislation that 78 percent of your voters had been asking for? There are reasons the JFC waited until 1 a.m. to vote along party lines on a slew of education issues. Because they thought maybe you’d be sleeping last night and that today you’d read the headlines and you’d think the crisis was over. Well, I know you’re smarter than that. Make sure your elected officials know it, too.”

As Wisconsin wakes up to what happened to its schools while we were sleeping, Wisconsin Public Education Network partners all over the state are ready to intensify their efforts to advocate for fair funding and equal opportunities to succeed for every student in Wisconsin public schools. We invite everyone who agrees that public education is the cornerstone of democracy and the heart of our communities to join us.

To learn more, or get involved, contact Wisconsin Public Education Network coordinator Heather DuBois Bourenane at [email protected] or call (608) 572-1696.