Today I’m talking with Dr. Jill Underly, the State Superintendent of Wisconsin Public Instruction. On July 5th, Governor Evers signed off on a two-year spending plan for the state of Wisconsin, and I’ve been following all sorts of reactions. On more than one occasion, I found myself thinking, “Gosh, I wonder what Dr. Underly thinks.” So, here we are. This episode is a conversation with Dr. Underly to hear thoughts. To learn more about the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, visit https://dpi.wi.gov/.
[Brogley]: Today I’m talking with Dr. Jill Underly, the State Superintendent of Wisconsin Public Instruction. Dr. Underly thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
[Underly]: Absolutely. Thanks for the invitation, Jessica.
[Brogley]: Yeah. On July 5th, Governor Evers signed off on a two-year spending plan for the state of Wisconsin, and I’ve been following all sorts of reactions. And on more than one occasion I found myself thinking, ‘Gosh, I wonder what, Doctor Underly thinks’. So here we are. So my first question is honestly really loaded and just an opportunity to hear what you’re thinking. With regards to K12 funding, what’s your reaction to the newly signed Wisconsin state budget?
[Underly]: You know, my reaction going up to it, you know, it was certainly something of dread because I didn’t think we were getting enough. Certainly, then, you know, as the budget then got signed and I learned about the veto, I was just really thinking, you know, this is good. You know, it’s good news. I had been really hopeful up to that point, you know, that elected leaders, they would come together. And recognize that we need to robustly fund the public schools considering we had so much money in our surplus. So thanks to the Governor’s veto, this is a strong start, going forward. But I still think that there’s a lot more to do, especially when we look at the lack of funding to address mental health. You know we had things in there as well for nutrition, you know providing meals for breakfast and lunch to all kids and then certainly the special education funding is just really disappointing. I mean we had an opportunity there as well. You know, reimbursement goes up to 33% which is still not going to really help districts all that much in that area, especially since the costs of everything just continue to go up. But you know, I’m really hopeful that we can use this budget as a step to head in the right direction toward addressing those funding needs and future budgets.
[Brogley]: And so just to back up for those who aren’t real familiar with Special Ed funding, I will say I taught for many years before I realized that we weren’t reimbursed at 100%. You know, I didn’t, I had no idea that wasn’t the thing. So can you explain the 33% for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with that?
[Underly]: Yeah. So federal law dictates that we have to provide services to students with disabilities that are individualized. And so that might mean something like speech and language. It could be behavior interventions. It could be services for students with cognitive disabilities. And so in Wisconsin, we get reimbursement from the state because the local district pays for things because it goes above and beyond, you know, the regular education costs. And so in Wisconsin, we have one of the lowest reimbursement rates and it’s only 30% currently. So $0.30 on the dollar we spend we get back and so that means local school districts are then trying to figure out because it’s a federal program. At the end of the year, they have to make sure there’s no deficit. So they end up transferring large amounts of money, you know, to make up that other 70%. And just to, you know, further comment on that, that 33%, I mean budgets are about values and we have to reflect on the value that we’re placing on Wisconsin’s children. And are we treating all children the same? Are we providing the services for all kids? And when you think about the future of Wisconsin, I mean it is Wisconsin’s children. And so we have to robustly fund our public schools and there’s money. I mean that’s the other, the other thing, you know, people will say, well, Jill Underly is always commenting and saying that we’re not spending enough or she wants more money for schools. Well, I’m disappointed to see that the legislature increased the funding going to voucher schools when in essence you know that money could have gone towards public schools, specifically special education reimbursement costs or many of the other needs that I mentioned before – mental health, nutrition. So you know that’s the other side of this is that you know when you think about priorities, you have to look at what the legislature is voting on increasing funding for. And in this case, it was not public schools.
[Brogley]: So in my notes, I did write down that there was a large increase in vouchers and charters. How significant are we talking and what kind of impact?
[Underly]: Yeah. So it’s going to, you know, vary, I suppose depending on where you live because our school funding formula is just absolutely so complicated. but they increased significantly the amount that would go for a high school voucher. So in some parts of the state, they’re paying more for private school voucher for a high school student than they would be to educate a child who lives within their school district. And in some parts of the state, you know that’s pretty dramatic. So vouchers are problematic for many reasons. It’s another school system that our legislature has chosen to fund. But also when you look deeper into the laws and policies that govern vouchers, the voucher program allows schools to engage in discriminatory practices, for example, against students with disabilities and students with families who identify as LGBTQ. And so we don’t have the capacity as a state to really support two separate school systems. And so that’s always been my issue and I feel like the issue with the vast majority of people who don’t support voucher systems. So we need to focus on funding the system that serves all the kids and that’s our public schools.
[Brogley]: You mentioned the funding for school mental health and it’s my understanding this budget only the increase is only for two years. Did I read that right?
[Underly]: The thing about the way that we fund our schools is the legislature has what they call categorical aids. Many states just say, here’s $1 billion schools, and then they distribute it out to the schools and then the schools decide what they’re going to use it for. In Wisconsin, our legislature tells us what we get to use it for. And so, like in the case of mental health, they’ll say here’s X $1,000,000 for mental health. Here’s X $1,000,000 for special education. Here’s X $1,000,000 for transportation. And so they tell us. And so it really takes away from the local decision-making. And so we can’t really necessarily put the money where we need it the most. We have to put it in the buckets or get it from the buckets that are allocated to us.
[Brogley]: Got it. And so you would like to see a greater focus on school-based mental health and supporting students, correct?
[Underly]: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you know, we’ve had a successful program during the pandemic called the Get Kids Ahead initiative. And when you look at the fact that the kids need the services and how do we get the services to them, oftentimes their parents are taking them out of school, transporting them someplace. And if you live in rural Wisconsin, I mean we’re talking like an hour and a half. Depends on, you know, where you live to get to a provider. If they don’t offer the virtual, so then you get them there and then they have their session by the time they come back, that’s, five hours out of your day lost of instruction. Yeah, that’s five hours that the child was not in school for instruction. Whereas if we can get the providers in the schools, meet them where the kids are, I think we can make, you know, a big difference.
[Brogley]: And you also mentioned school lunches not being included
[Underly]: I was surprised by that just because we provide so many other ways to eliminate barriers for students. When you think about transportation, that’s a huge barrier for families and so we provide buses. When we think about textbooks or Chromebooks, whatever. It is technology. We don’t make people buy it themselves, right? The school provides these, and we have to start thinking about school breakfast and lunch in the same kind of way. We know that they’re imperative to learning. You know, having good nutrition makes you a better learner, makes you healthier. And you’re able to focus in school rather than thinking about going to get your next meal. I think it’s time we need to start thinking about nutrition as a way to eliminate another barrier. Let’s just do it. We’re seeing a lot of states going down this road and I applaud them and I hope Wisconsin will follow.
[Brogley]: Absolutely. So there’s certainly some things to be concerned about. Do you see any wins, any big wins for Wisconsin K12 education in this budget?
[Underly]: Absolutely. I mean, considering the past budgets failed to provide any funding increases, any increase in spending authority for public schools is better than none. So, and that reliable increase that Governor Evers gave us for the next 402 years will make a difference for centuries, right? So it, you know, offers districts this ongoing foundation of revenue growth to build from and the nice thing about it is that the districts can use it if they need it. It’s not that they have to use it. I mean it’s all part of the complicated funding formula, but when they set their revenue through the levy, this is all local. This is not coming from the state. Ideally, it would have come from the state but, now that it’s local, the local school boards decide if you know they want to use it or not. And of course, the implication of that is, you know, it raises property taxes. If they do thats because it’s local. But like I said, it offers districts this ongoing foundation of revenue growth to build from. It’s predictable. So when you think about, you know, the $325 added on every year. In the past two years, we got zero, so many times it’s going to meet inflationary growth or exceed it. So that’s really good. And so that gives schools the opportunity to make really intentional, meaningful decisions about what to spend their funding on. We haven’t had a statutorily guaranteed revenue limit since 2009-10 school year. So it’s been 13 years. And I have a 15-year-old daughter. So I think the entire time she’s been in school, you know, we haven’t had a revenue limit increase. And you think about the generations of kids, you know, that are going through schools without having basic operational needs being met. So since, you know, 2009-10, it’s been up to the legislature to step in and provide something, and more times than not they failed to do anything. So having that $325 upper built into law is a great place to start. And like I said, some years it may be over inflation, and others we may need to adjust the number higher but in order to do that we’ll need the legislature’s help. So but at the end of the day, negotiating from that point will give districts a predictable number that grows over time. So they’re coming off the fiscal cliff. So we’ve talked a lot about that. You know, because they got the federal dollars through the pandemic relief, that money is running out. So $325 is welcome. So that is, that is a good thing. And so, we can get teachers hired, we can get new curriculum implemented. They could fix, perhaps a deferred maintenance project. So there’s a lot of opportunity.
[Brogley]: So Speaking of, funding education in Wisconsin, let’s talk postsecondary for a moment. What are your thoughts about how we fund postsecondary education or the importance of funding postsecondary education in the state of Wisconsin?
[Underly]: Yeah, we definitely need to take a closer look at our funding for higher education in Wisconsin. And higher education is our, you know, our technical college system as well as our four-year college system. And when you look at the data, you look at the research, the fact is that strong, well-funded higher education, it’s an economic driver. You know when kids graduate high school, they need a credential. Whether it’s, looking at the building trades and going into an apprenticeship and the skilled labor workforce. But if not, they need to be getting a credential through the technical college system or the UW system. And, those credits really open up career doors and when it comes to thinking about it from a state funding point of view, You know, as I said earlier, it’s the economic driver for our entire state. I mean these are, these are the future, entrepreneurs and business owners and teachers and doctors and nurses. Teachers and the farmers in my area, they attend short courses at the UW or they go to the tech college system. Everybody, if you’re going to have that career growth and that economic security, you need that experience and higher education. It doesn’t come cheap. There’s a lot that we have to invest in. And if you go to these campuses and you tour the labs, especially when you look at some of the machinery that students are learning on and then the professional expertise behind that, and then the facilities, these are multibillion-dollar operations that we have and we’re fortunate to have statewide. But it’s a huge infrastructure and we have to keep it going and we only can do that through know state investment. We can’t rely on tuition dollars alone to keep these systems going. Long term, it’s a big part of how we attract and retain a strong workforce in Wisconsin. And that’s how we strengthen the economy of our state too. And we have to make Wisconsin a place people want to study, work and live and raise families on.
[Brogley]: I appreciate that focus on education. It really is. When you think about the backbone of your community, it comes back to a solid, solid school system education, whether it be K12 or postsecondary. Education matters. So you know, as folks enter August, we’ve got last-minute vacations and county fairs and oh, I suppose back-to-school shopping heats up and in some cases, even referendums have triggered early start dates. So school is really on the brain. And I bet teachers are even having those teacher dreams. Do you have any words of inspiration for our educators who are heading back to the classroom soon?
[Underly]: It’s a great question, Jess. I think throughout my career in education, the kids. They’ve always been my inspiration and I know it’s true for teachers and school staff across our state. And as you mentioned, you know, with all the excitement around back-to-school time, I love it. I love back-to-school time. And it’s so exciting for our kids and our teachers. You know, it’s a new start, a fresh start, new people to meet. I mean, I don’t mean to diminish the other challenging aspects of, you know, this time of year too. I mean we have to think about the challenges that we’re facing. It’s another reason that getting back into the classroom is what is so inspiring about working with kids and knowing that each of these teachers makes such a difference. You know, the teachers and the staff that we have in our schools, they’re preparing the next generation of leaders, maybe teachers, and that’s amazing. So I know school staff work incredibly hard. And I know that, if I could speak to them directly here, I know that you feel great support from your communities and sometimes you don’t. And I will certainly keep working to build that support for you and to get you the resources that you need to prepare this next generation. And I’m just so grateful and so impressed by your dedication and your commitment to this incredible profession. But if I’m to become inspired or just to get re-energized, I really think about the reasons that I looked forward most to going back to school were to see those kids and to be among them because they are just so energizing and they are inspiring. They never fail to amaze me on the things that they can do. So that was one of the best things about being a teacher.
[Brogley]: As always, Dr. Underly, thank you for your perspective and your time.
[Underly]: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.