April 3, 2015
Another round of Joint Finance Committee hearings occurred last Thursday in Reedsburg amid continued controversy over Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-2017 state budget.
For the last several weeks, crowds have been packing high school and college auditoriums for a chance to testify before a panel of state senators on the budget cuts under the governor’s proposal, including programs supporting adults with long-term care needs and staff reductions in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Perhaps the most highly charged debate, however, surrounds cuts to Wisconsin’s public education system. The governor’s budget would reduce educational spending on each public school student by $150 during the first year of the 2015-2017 budget proposal. According to advocacy groups, these cuts would result in school aid reduction in Wisconsin public schools by $127 million and many parents are now voicing concerns about how such changes might affect their children’s quality of education. In combination with revenue caps, budget cuts would force school closings and mergers, teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and reductions in course offerings, programs and services. Should the budget pass, the University of Wisconsin-Madison would also face dramatic reductions in spending, amounting to over $300 million in cuts to the university budget system.
Many concerns at recent Joint Finance Committee hearings focused in particular on the effect public education cuts would have on minority students. Bob Peterson, President of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, spoke at the March 20 hearing at Alverno College in Milwaukee in support of Chapter 220, also known as the Voluntary Student Transfer Program. Under this program, urban minority students are given the opportunity to attend school in suburban districts.
Under the governor’s budget, this program would be on the chopping block. Peterson, who noted Metropolitan Milwaukee’s high black-white segregation, sees the program both as a way for urban minority students to access educational opportunities as well as a way to reduce racial segregation. He sees the cuts as unnecessary, pointing to millions of dollars still funneled into private schools each year by the state government. Dominic Madison, superintendent of Brillion Public Schools, further warned of the effects public education cuts might have on students from districts with higher levels of poverty and fewer viable financial resources. He points out that without sufficient funding from the state level, school districts would be forced to rely on other local financing options, which might lend itself to reserving higher educational quality and opportunity to students in more prosperous areas. “We cannot allow a student’s zip code to be the primary driver of that student’s quality of education,” he said.
Dr. Darlenne Driver, who also spoke at the March 20 hearing, sees education as a matter of civil rights. She is superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, a district composed of 77,000 students, 87 percent of whom are students of color and 84 percent of whom live in poverty. She urged state senators and Wisconsin residents alike to see public education as an investment rather than an expense. “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” she said, emphasizing just how important state funding of educational opportunities is to students across the state. Those who will face the biggest impact from cuts in public education are students living in rural and urban districts, whose schools are limited in how they can make up for the loss in public education funding.