So today’s episode is a little different for me in that, even though I’ve already done the interview, I still feel I have a lot to learn about funding for public schools in Wisconsin. Back in the day, when I was teaching HS English, I didn’t think much at all about school funding. I had, for the most part, as far as I knew, what I needed to do my job. I certainly did not think about the bigger picture or how financial decisions made at the state level, might impact public education. I don’t think my experience is unusual. As the years have passed, I’ve grown to understand that funding public education is certainly a challenge that’s deeply impacting our rural schools. So in this episode, I’m honestly just asking questions about funding for public schools in Wisconsin. To kick off National Public Schools week, I’m introducing you to the executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, Heather DuBois Bourenane. The interview itself is actually in two parts. Part 1 was just days before the Governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, released his proposed budget, and Part 2 was just days after. Heather will explain how funding in Wisconsin impacts public schools and how the Wisconsin Public Education Network is a strong advocate for public schools. If you’re new to learning about how public schools in Wisconsin are funded, this conversation will, hopefully, stir your mind to learn more. Be sure to check out the show notes for relevant links.
Do you want to learn more about how public schools are funded in Wisconsin?
Brogley: So today’s episode is a little different for me in that even though I’ve already done the interview, I still feel like I have a lot to learn about funding for public schools in Wisconsin. Back in the day, when I was teaching high school English, I didn’t think much at all about school funding. I had, for the most part, as far as I knew, what I needed to do my job. I certainly did not think about the bigger picture or how financial decisions made at the state level might impact public education near me. I don’t think my experience was all that unusual, but as the years have passed, I’ve grown to understand that funding public education is certainly a challenge that’s deeply impacting our rural schools. So in this episode, I’m honestly just asking questions about funding for public schools in Wisconsin. To kick off National Public Schools Week, I’m introducing you to the executive director for the Wisconsin Public Education Network, Heather DuBois Bourenane. The interview itself is actually in two parts. Part One, just days before the Governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, released his proposed budget, and Part 2 is just days after. Heather willl explain how funding in Wisconsin impacts public schools and how the Wisconsin Public Education Network is a strong advocate for public schools. If you’re new to learning about how public schools in Wisconsin are funded, this conversation will hopefully stir your mind to learn more. Be sure to check out our show notes for relevant links.
HDB: So like you said, my name is Heather Dubois Brennan. I am a public schools parent who lives in Sun Prairie and about 10 years ago now, I was introduced to the good folks at Wisconsin Public Education Network. Now that I think about it, it’s been a couple more than 10 years, but I found in them folks who shared my concerns and my passions related to public schools and specifically the worries that we all shared that we are just not meeting the needs of all the kids and that we’re meeting those needs very unequally across the state, across our districts, and even across sometimes schools in one district. So what’s at the bottom of that, and how do we fix it? Those were the first questions I started to ask and then kind of more importantly, “Why isn’t anyone fixing it, even though everybody seems to know what the solution requires?” And so I got more and more involved with that organization, and they hired me to be their Executive Director about eight years ago. And ever since, we have just worked as hard as we can to connect people who share those concerns across the state and just to try to do our part where we live to be better informed, way more engaged, and much more influential in getting the change that kids need if we really want to see every single one of them thrive.
Brogley: I certainly appreciate your advocacy and willingness to get involved. For our listeners who are not familiar with Wisconsin Public Education network, give us a little overview. What is the network?
HDB: So Wisconsin public Education Network has become over the years, a sort of umbrella organization, a coalition of people who want to make sure that we are creating the conditions for every single kid in every single public school to have the resources and supports that they need to thrive. And so we reach out across all of the professional organizations and try to make sure that we’re tapped into the needs and concerns of educators, superintendents, school board members, school nurses, psychologists and librarians. And all of the good people who are doing all of the good things every day, all year long for kids and regular folks who are interested in, invested in, student success as well. Parents and caregivers, community members, local business leaders, just folks in our communities who want to see our schools thrive. And so we create a space where we can all kind of come together on equal footing. We don’t all have to agree on all the things because that’s a really big tent, but we do give each other some common vocabulary for talking about the basics for finding common ground across all of these diverse Individual groups and organizations and create a space where we can just be stronger together and raising a collective voice, and so that’s kind of what we are at a state level. But at the local level, really what this looks like, is a local team that’s just tapped into a statewide network to get facts and make local organizing easier. So a lot of referenda teams, for example, will come to us and say, “Hey, our district has to raise taxes on itself to pay for schools. And I was asked to help pass that. Like help. You know, like, how do you do that? Like, what does that mean? Why or why do I have to do this?” And we give people tools and resources to make that work a little easier so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and more importantly, so that folks don’t feel like they’re just kind of alone out there spinning their wheels. But they’re actually one of many, many people all over the state who are concerned about this. And even if you don’t know it, there are probably a lot of people in your own community who share your very same concerns. They just don’t really know where to go with them.
Brogley: So you’re working with people in education from all corners of the state and rural, urban everything, correct?
HDB: Yeah, we see ourselves as dot connectors and people connectors. So we’re just trying to make those connections that help people better understand and better serve our kids and the public schools that serve them. We also try to demystify some of those gaps by giving people opportunities to see that the challenges facing urban and rural schools are maybe less different than you think. There are some challenges, of course, that are unique to every district and we want to be tapped into those so that we know what local kids need. But we also want to look for patterns and to expose areas where the state can do better and in providing some solutions that would serve all of the kids.
Brogley: When it comes to advocacy at the state level, where does Wisconsin public education network fit in?
HDB: Yeah. Thanks for asking that. Because speaking up in local spaces and state spaces is a big part of what we do and what we encourage local folks to do. Our motto has always been local-level action, and statewide impact. We encourage people to take action where they live and to tell the stories that expose what policy, budgets, challenges problems, concerns we have and what they mean for local kids. So building relationships with your school board members, listening to what’s happening at school board meetings, paying attention to what’s happening at the State House, what kind of bills are coming forward where? How did your lawmaker vote? What does your lawmaker think is happening in your schools? Do they know? Do they really know? Do they care? Right, and like, and how do you, how do you find out? First of all, it’s all about relationships. Creating relationships with people, you know, so that you have the information you can trust and be a responsible messenger for what’s happening in your schools. Being honest about those challenges and about the cool things that you want to celebrate. And then making relationships with people who have decision making power so that you can be somebody that they trust and lean on when they have a question about, you know, what a bill might mean, what a budget, what budget needs might be and so on. So we create lots of tools and templates for people to navigate that world. How do you become friends with your state legislature legislators, right? That’s not easy for most people, but it’s a lot easier than you might think, right? It mainly just involves showing up, because often when you do, there aren’t a ton of other people there, right? When folks hold town halls or listening sessions, like, you have an opportunity to have an audience to somebody who has real decision-making power where your voice can be heard and not taking advantage of those situations really means that they don’t know, right? They don’t know what kids need, so we see those kind of engagements in the democratic process as equally important as voting, right? It’s great to get out there and vote and know where the candidates stand and we certainly help educate people on that, but the next step is holding our elected officials accountable for doing what they said they were going to do before we voted for them. And so that’s why we encourage a very grassroots, localized level of like you know. They call it grassroots lobbying. Where regular people just talk to their own lawmakers and make sure that their concerns. You’ve heard.
Brogley: So we’re rolling into the spring and certainly there will be lots of decisions made soon that will impact our public schools. What’s on your mind as we head into spring elections?
HDB: Yeah, it’s a huge spring for kids and I hope people are paying attention because there is a lot at stake. I mean, let’s start in the first with the first thing. Spring elections, right? April 4. Everybody gets to go to the ballot box and vote for their school board members. Everybody should know where all of those candidates stand on the issues. How they envision the future of the district. What kind of leaders do they want to be? And really be voting for the public schools champions to make sure that we’re electing people who are going to be responsible leaders in our local communities, in our local schools. And 2nd, referenda. I mean we are just coming out of a year that saw near record number of referenda and this spring. We have 81 more questions on school ballots statewide and 60 different, 67 I think, was last number I saw when I counted those from DPI, 67 different communities going to referenda for people to vote to raise taxes on themselves to cover the basics and their public schools. Or to fund building projects if you need to expand or renovate. And so these are really important questions that have direct impacts on the lives of our children and people need to know what’s at stake. So we really encourage folks to help that help your district educate the community and on why it’s important to vote this spring and make sure you know where you stand on all of those things. If anyone’s listening to this and they have a referendum coming up we’re holding a how to run a winning referenda workshop. It’s free to the public. It happens to be this coming Thursday, February 16, but if you missed it, all of the resources from this event are on our website, wisconsinnetwork.org and you can see the video, see the toolkits, reach out to us and we’d love to help help you in your community make this work a little bit easier. Finally, we also have a state Supreme Court race on that spring ballot, and you can never underestimate the significance of that office to the future of our public schools. There are many school related issues that have been brought before this court in the past and that will be brought up to the court in the future. I am sure having to do with the constitutionality, for example, of the statewide private school voucher program or whether or not we’re meeting our constitutional obligation to provide an education to our kids that is as uniform as it can be. Because right now from where I’m sitting, it certainly does not look like it is. So these are important things that people need to pay attention to and that is of paramount importance. Second, we’re also in a state budget. So every two years the state goes into the workshop and drafts out a budget and brings it before the state legislature, and then they go around the state. You know, listening to people and hearing what their budget priorities are and, you know, kind of testing the response to the Governors proposal, which is coming out this Wednesday, February 15th. You’ll have an opportunity to weigh in and to share your concerns and to let lawmakers know why this budget matters to local kids and what you think the budget priorities will be. Then they’ll go back to the statehouse and kind of hash it out, and the members of the Joint Finance Committee will put forward their own version of the budget, which could be an adaptation of the governor’s budget. Or they could throw that government, that budget in the garbage like they did last time around and come up with their own whole new budget that’s based on the base. Budget from last time. So listeners should know that the budget from last time sent kids back to school with $0.00 spendable aid. So despite everything that you may have heard about historic investments in education, when lawmakers refuse to lift the spending limits for districts, it doesn’t matter how much state aid they contribute, it just means that the status quo is maintained and that local property. Taxpayers pay slightly less of this share. And so that’s kind of what happened last time. It was property tax relief disguised as state aid for schools. And that talking point has been used very manipulatively to suggest that we are, that we have restored our investment to our schools when, when the fact is we have not. We are still funding our schools at levels below the level we were in 2009 when we adjust for inflation, and it would take 1500 dollars per student, just to keep up with inflation, if we started at the point we ended off in the last budget. That’s how much inflation has risen. So there is a lot at stake here. And if lawmakers plan to nickel and dime kids again this year and play those kind of politics with our budget, I certainly hope that they hear from the people who share our concerns and frustrations about that today.
Brogley: Yeah, the state revenue cap has been coming up in conversations lately. I’m sure it has been for a long time, but I’m just kind of getting into these circles now. No doubt the state revenue CAP is hurting Wisconsin public education as it limits the amount of funding. Can you talk about that? Am I correct? Is the state revenue cap hurting Wisconsin public education?
HDB: Yeah, you are absolutely correct. This is, you know. I’m an accidental expert on this stuff. I did not get into this game because I cared about revenue limits, as they’re called, or because I cared about school finance. But when I started to learn how schools are funded in this state, my jaw just dropped. Because the fact is, the way we fund schools has nothing to do with what kids need. It’s entirely related to property values. It’s a system that’s based on property values and not student needs. And furthermore. Um, subject to spending caps, which are called revenue limits by the state. These spending caps, which were arbitrary caps that were put into place. The state told districts it was a temporary measure to kind of help some districts catch up, and that would only be in place for five years. Well, we’re 20 years into revenue caps and 30 years into school voucher spending. And what we have seen is the disparities have grown wider and wider. We still have those caps. Districts are frozen into spending patterns that are absolutely unrelated to their needs. And something’s gotta give. So it used to be that the state, you know, put the caps into place, but every budget cycle, they would at least give districts what they called an inflationary increase to the CAP so that the spending would rise commensurate with inflation. Well, under Governor Walker, they stopped with that inflationary increase. So the caps, the spending limits, have essentially been frozen for all but a couple of years of state budgets since that time, since about 2011. And the result is just a catastrophic downward trend in the in this state. We are spending a significantly lower court percentage of our state GPR on public schools than we did at that time. And if you look around, you’ll see, you know. Public schools are just telling you, everywhere you look, we’ve been tightening and tightening and tightening this belt and there’s, you know, there’s not room for another notch. You know, we’ve come full circle and we’ve reached the end. There is nothing left to cut. We’re hearing districts talk about insolvency, consolidation and inability to keep, you know, more than one school building open. So they’re kind of cramming kids into two buildings because they can’t maintain the cost of two. That is absolutely unacceptable in a state that’s currently sitting on a record surplus that could fix every single one of these problems if we just chose to put our priorities where our priority needs are.
Brogley: My home district where I grew up is considering dissolving and it breaks my heart to think about how that is going to negatively impact that community and the families and those kids.
HDB: Public schools are the living, breathing parts of our communities. And when the schools shut down, we lose the glue that connects us to each other, that kind of core, that, that place, that brings us together. Our public schools unite us in a very literal way. And when we don’t have that, how do we connect to each other? We’re not all members of the same faith communities. We don’t all shop at the same places. We don’t all come to the same spaces all that often. Particularly, those of us who live in sparse or, you know, rural areas, it’s the school. It’s the school that serves as the hub for everything. You know, there’s a tragedy. We meet in the gym, there’s a celebration. We’re in that auditorium, right? Everything happens through the school. And, and folks know it. Furthermore, schools tend to be the primary employer of small communities. And when you shut down the school, that’s jobs that you don’t have anymore, and that has a devastating effect on a local and struggling economy. So if part of the reason for the school shutting down in the 1st place was declining enrollments, people are, you know, not sticking around after they graduate and so on, school closures have a massive acceleration effect of those kinds of things on local economies.
Brogley: What are the budget priorities that we should be most concerned about and paying attention to?
HDB: Yeah, that’s a good question because there are a lot of challenges facing local kids and local schools. And sometimes, you know, when we come at lawmakers with all of those, they can feel overwhelming. So we do think it’s important that we all kind of try to focus our priorities on the areas that we’re hearing the most that are of the most concern. And so we’ve been listening at past budget sessions, at hearings last year, at the Blue Ribbon Commission on school funding that went around the state a couple years ago, listening to folks. From all over the place and trying to connect the dots and these are the priority areas that we’re hearing the most. The first is just school funding in general. We need more money and we need to get rid of revenue limits right there. We need to catch up to inflation at the minimum, but we also need to close the gap and fix this school funding problem once and for all. We can get a lot further in the state budget if we provide that minimum of a 1500. So an inflationary bump for every kid, plus increased spending limits so that districts can actually get that aid into classrooms. That’s kind of the 1st and most basic thing. It’s just we need to close that spending gap Second, special education budget. We’ve only increased our reimbursement by a couple percentage points nation hovering at about 30% reimbursement. We want to see that reimbursement increased to 90% because 90% is the reimbursement currently enjoyed by students who are attending private schools using a special needs voucher and because that is, where the need is. Our public schools gladly, joyfully, happily, skillfully meet the needs of all kids and welcome all learners and want to meet those requirements, but when the state doesn’t cover the cost, the money comes out of the general fund to do it. And so over a billion dollars every single year is spent by taking money from general funds to cover special education costs. So we really need to close that funding gap, and that funding discrimination that the current state currently has between students and public and private schools. It’s just not fair. Thirdly, the state needs to put priority dollars where the priority needs are in a bunch of categories that haven’t been attended to in past budgets. Mental health needs of kids
were already a crisis before the pandemic, and now it’s simply out of control. We do not have enough professionals to address the social and emotional needs of kids in our schools. We do not have enough resources and supports to support educators in our schools. And there are many other ways that mental health needs are getting in the way of teaching and learning all across the state. We need to help kids by meeting them where they are. We need to address the needs of rural schools. We need to look at sparsity aid and make sure that schools have enough money to get buses across wide areas of this. The state and transportation costs are huge and especially in rural districts but also in urban districts. We need to address those with this budget and also look at districts that are currently hurt by an unfair spending formula because they have such low revenue. It’s compared to their neighbors. We need to make sure that those districts can provide the same level of services that other districts can and we need to make some adjustments to support them as well. Finally, just thinking a little bit about pre-K kids and early childhood needs, that’s an area that has really been neglected in past budget as well as giving districts some more resources to attract and retain excellent educators. Wisconsin, like many states, has a real teacher crisis right now because we’re not creating conditions that are favorable for employment and we’re making it hard for folks to want to move to a district where. You’re not going to make a very competitive wage and that is a problem seeing a lot of people leaving the profession because it’s an unsustainable business model. You know, we need to treat teachers like the professionals that they are, compensate them accordingly, and make sure that they’re being supported in every way. So there’s a lot under that umbrella of just sort of a priority needs. And so I would urge people to talk to folks in your district and find out what of those on that list are the most important to your district and really emphasize that as you go forward. And then finally, we’d like to see the state just place a moratorium on increasing spending to these unaccountable and independently operated private schools and privately operated schools that are receiving public funds. The gap between spending is getting a little bit ridiculous. We keep increasing money in those categories while not while refusing to increase accountability while reducing the total amount of dollars that can go to public schools. And we’re seeing the catastrophic results all across the state. Some to reassess that program. And if the state wishes to maintain that sort of spending, they need to find a different source of revenue for it, instead of just pulling all the aid away from public schools. Your listeners might be interested to know that nearly 80% of students who participate in the statewide Parental choice program, the statewide voucher program, are students who never set foot in a public school. They either already attended the private schools or they entered those schools as kindergarteners. And so we’re basically just funding a separate system now. We’re just adding more kids to the mix and the caps on that program are slated to come off in 2026. The state needs to take a minute and figure out how they’re going to pay for that. Because if we see them funding it the way they currently do, which is just by reducing the amount of aid that’s available for public schools, we’re facing a really serious crisis at that point, and we need to be prepared for what that means. So I hope folks are talking to their lawmakers about that issue, too. Because it’s one that has become very politically charged and confusing, and it’s one that we can’t just keep ignoring because we don’t want to talk about it.
Brogley: Alright, so the governor’s budget came out last week. What are your thoughts?
HDB: Well, we were, first of all, thrilled to see that the budget that the Governor put forward last week took some of the additional money that has, you know, appeared in our massive surplus and allocated it toward meeting the needs that our kids have right now. Specifically he Increased the contribution that the state would make to reimbursement for Special Ed to 60% right away in the first year of his biannual budget and then kept it there in the second year. The Governor talks about making a pathway to 90% so that we can end that funding discrimination between kids in public and private schools and we think that is absolutely fantastic. Increasing the percentage that we reimburse public schools for their Special Ed services is transformative for every school in the state. And so that’s something that will have a direct impact everywhere you look. We are also excited about the investments that he’s making in student mental health and addressing some of those revenue limit challenges that we talked about a little bit earlier and just thinking about how it really is going to take a large investment from the state to keep up with inflation. That Fiscal Bureau memo that we saw about a week ago showed that it’s going to take at least $1500 a student just to keep up with inflation in the next year. And you know, if we’re being honest, that’s basically what the governor’s budget does. It invests some critical areas and then it provides what we might, know, consider status quo funding that lets districts keep up with inflation budget. So we hope that the legislature will take this seriously and that will hear less of the rhetoric that we’ve heard in the past about, know, the budget being kind of pie in the sky because given the massive inflation that we’re facing right now, It’s it’s a really a pretty modest adjustment to a devastatingly underfunded system that we’ve seen in past few budgets.
Brogley: So how does the budget process work?
HDB: Oh, great question because that’s kind of it is kind of confusing, and it’s hard sometimes to know where we are in that process. But after the governor presents his proposal, the nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau will assess the proposal and send their assessment over to the Joint Committee on Finance, which is a powerful bipartisan committee of the state legislature that basically has the job of reviewing the governor’s proposal. And then putting forward another proposal, either adapting the governors or coming or throwing it in the garbage like they’ve done in the past and coming up with their own and then sending that proposal forward to both houses of the legislature for a vote. Before they do that, though, they’re going to go around the state and they’re going to listen to what the public has to say about the budget in public hearings that will be held in yet-to-be-determined locations. Usually those hearings are announced in mid to late March and held in. In August and in the in the past few cycles, we’ve seen anywhere from 4 to 6 hearings around the state. Last time they did, I think 3 in person ones and one virtual one. We expect to see something relatively similar this time around. After the hearings are held then the Joint Finance Committee will get back together and review everything that they’ve heard and that’s when they decide what kind of budget they’re going to put forward to the legislature. So let’s hold them accountable for producing a budget that’s actually aligned with what they hear at those hearings. Because what we’ve heard in the past couple of cycles is that public education has been the number one issue at every single one of the hearings. We’ve been going to these for years and tracking the testimony and we’ve got the receipts that show this. However, the members of the committee have come away from those hearings and put forward a budget that doesn’t respond to those needs in a coherent way at all. In fact, has actively ignored the testimony that they’ve heard. And so we want to create a circumstance where that’s not possible. Let’s make sure that we’re we’re writing a budget together as a state, regardless of our politics, that’s really addressing the priority needs of our kids, and that we’re all working together to make sure that those needs are being met in a realistic and affordable way, but also in one that’s taking seriously the fact that our public schools are in crisis right now, and that’s a problem. We have the resources to fix, so we have an obligation to our kids to do so.
Brogley: So how does the average person get to speak at one of these budget hearings?
HDB: So there will be lots of opportunities for regular folks to attend these hearings and share their thoughts in person. When you do that, you get 2 minutes to speak, so come prepared and check out our website, wisconsinnetwork.org/budget for some pro tips on how you can be the best advocate you can be, and use your two minutes really wisely to tell your story in a way that’s going to connect with people and reminds our lawmakers that we’re talking about tax dollars here. We’re talking about investments of public funds, but we’re really talking about what kids needed and so showing them what those needs look like and why this budget is so critically important to the vibrancy of the communities we live in is our job during that budget process.
Brogley: So how do folks get involved with Wisconsin Public Education network if they need a little education and inspiration?
HDB: Again check out our website. We’ve got loads of resources there to help you understand the budget, see where we are in the process and be a sort of budget ambassador where you live and just bring your story to people in your community. It is very important to let our lawmakers know what we expect to see in the budget. And if they don’t hear from us, they think we don’t care. They think we aren’t paying attention. They think we trust them to do whatever they wish to do with our tax dollars. So it is important to speak up there, but it’s just as important to make sure that your community knows what you said, so testifying and then amplifying your testimony by sharing it out locally and by continuing to be that budget ambassador where you live. Take a couple of minutes in meetings that you’re already attending to share your thoughts and concerns and to let others know when the next hearing is how they can submit their testimony in writing or electronically. If they can’t attend one of these hearings in person or are thinking about ways that you can raise your collective voice by educating others in your community about what this means to local kids are all things that are easier to do than it might sound if we all just carry a little bit of the weight of it.
Brogley: Well, you’ve certainly given me 100 reasons to get involved.
HDB: Sorry there’s so many reasons to get involved.
Brogley: Ohh goodness. My stress level was like creeping up as you’re speaking. But there are so many reasons to become involved and become civically engaged, with decisions made locally but at the state level as well, and making sure our voices are heard. So we have our public schools for generations to come, right? So one more time, where do people go if they want to get involved with Wisconsin public education network?
HDB: Come check us out at wisconsinnetwork.org. It’s Wisconsin network all spelled out. And you know, you’re right, Jessica. It’s it’s heavy. And it’s hard to, you know, kind of navigate all of these complex and confusing problems. But there’s also a lot of hope, right? Our schools, in spite of it all, continue to thrive and to meet the needs of kids. And the students themselves give us so much hope, because they are so ready to tackle these challenges themselves, and they deserve every. Minute of whatever attention we can give to this issue because they don’t get another shot at going through our systems. They don’t get another shot at being kids. It’s now or never for the students that we’ve got now, and we can’t keep kicking, kicking this can down the road. So I really do take a lot of hope on the sort of contagious enthusiasm that people seem to have for wanting to be part of this, this challenging work. Because if we don’t do it, there’s not somebody else who’s going to step up and do it for us. It’s really on us. And we need to take advantage of every single opportunity democracy affords us to raise our voices and make sure that we’re doing our part to make sure our kids have what they need to succeed.