Commission aims to tackle public school funding issues after hearing problems from around the state

Commission aims to tackle public school funding issues after hearing problems from around the state
Co-chairs Rep. Joel Kitchens and Sen. Luther Olsen listen to speakers at the final Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding hearing. 

On Monday, the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding held ITS final hearing at the capitol.

The group of lawmakers, superintendents, lobbyists and educators heard from speakers about how Wisconsin’s school funding system ranks nationally and then took input from the public.

It was the last of multiple public hearings across the state. Teachers, administrators and parents have been vocal about the many issues facing the public school system.

“The message is absolutely clear: we’re falling short. We’re falling short on our children and we’re at a point of doing harm and we need to fix this,” said Dr. Julie Underwood, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission and a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The current public school funding formula is based on a revenue limit set in the early 1990s. It puts a cap on the amount of money school districts can get from the state and from local levies.

“When you have two-thirds of the districts in declining enrollment, those districts are cash-starved. Those districts are taxing and levying already to the max,” said Jill Underly, the superintendent of the Pecatonica School District.

Co-chairs Rep. Joel Kitchens and Sen. Luther Olsen said they’ve heard about many of the same big issues at each hearing, including declining enrollment, the lack of special education funding and the struggle to find support for rural districts.

“The way the formula works now is that if you have less children, we assume it costs you the same amount per child. Where in reality if you have less, it costs you more,” said Sen. Olsen.

Teachers and parents have testified that low-income students, English language learners and special education students are many of the students struggling.

“The state funds special education for private schools at a 90 percent reimbursement and a 26 percent (reimbursement) for our public schools,” said Underwood. “That doesn’t make sense and it’s unfair.”

Olsen and Kitchens will meet with each member of the commission individually to go over what they believe needs to be done. The group will then come together once more to finalize its proposals before making recommendations to Governor Scott Walker and the legislature.

Olsen said they plan to present multiple proposals for individual issues, instead of one large study that tries to address too many of the problems.

“The combination of a funding formula that is not working and a decade of cuts has really hurt districts in ways that are causing a lot of problems for kids. We just want to see fairness restored,” said Heather DuBoise Bourenane with the Wisconsin Public Education Network.