Department of Public Instruction wants $1.6 billion more in budget, finance committee chair calls it ‘unrealistic’

MADISON, Wis. — The state Department of Public Instruction wants $1.6 billion more included in its budget over the next couple years than the last budget, but that might not be a request the Republican-led finance committee will grant.

The department is asking for a total of $7.4 billion in 2021-22 and $7.7 billion in 2022-23, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. This compares to $6.7 billion in 2020-21.

Mike Thompson, the deputy state superintendent, said the extra money will go toward initiatives in special education, equity and mental health aid.

“We think it’s a realistic budget,” he said. “We think it’s a budget that prioritizes what the citizens of Wisconsin want for educating their kids. It makes investments in kids, and what better investment can we make than in children?”

The budget request will go through analysis at the state capitol as lawmakers figure out what the state can afford.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette and the co-chair of the last joint committee on finance, said this year it’s not going to be a lot.

“In reality we’re going to be facing a budget where we’re going to be lucky to be fairly close to what we funded last budget,” he said. “So my concern is it is a wish list that is very unrealistic considering the financial times we find ourselves in.”

He said schools are a priority, but at a time with higher unemployment and business closures he doesn’t want to raise taxes.

Another question the committee will face is how much to give schools for each student when enrollment is down from the pandemic. Though it’s based on a rolling three-year average, thousands of kids leaving public school could have an impact.

Nygren said districts need to deal with that as a consequence of their decisions.

“If they’re making those decisions, I think they need to be accountable for those decisions, not only with the public but also the resources,” he said.

Nygren believes other conservatives on the committee will agree.

The department said districts were making decisions based on health that didn’t help their bottom line.

“It’s not decisions made by districts or decisions arbitrarily made by parents,” Thompson said. “It’s the conditions of a pandemic that really caused this factor to happen.”

Nygren said if the resources are there, the legislature could look at passing more funding for schools when enrollment picks back up.