MADISON, Wis. — Republicans who control the state Assembly haven’t done enough to address funding cuts, high poverty and teacher shortages in Wisconsin’s rural schools, state Democratic leaders charged Thursday.
With about two months before Election Day, the news conference was a response of sorts to the Republicans’ one Wednesday, during which the GOP unveiled their priorities for 2017, including finding “solutions for problems facing students in rural school districts.”
But Democrats, including Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, argued Republicans have failed over the past five years to address those problems, which they said is making it difficult for some smaller, rural schools to stay open.
“It’s past time to invest in our rural schools,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Democrat from Stevens Point. “Our rural communities are at a breaking point. They’ve pinched all the dollars they can.”
Republican Rep. Rob Swearingen, who lives in Rhinelander and has taken lead on rural schools issues for the GOP, said there were clearly inequities in the school funding formula that adversely affect rural areas, but that not all small schools are in dire straits.
“We’re addressing the issue, we’re not running from the issue,” Swearingen said.
Democrats also released a memo Thursday from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that said state aid to low-enrollment rural schools has dropped 13.5 percent the past five years. Declining enrollment is the largest factor contributing to that drop, along with changes in property values and the cost to educate students.
Swearingen accused Democrats of “cherry-picking” the numbers and “playing games” to score political points. He said the memo didn’t give a full picture of funding for rural schools because it leaves out several other sources of money, including aid targeted to small schools and money for transportation costs.
Overall state aid for all public schools since Republicans took control of the Legislature has increased slightly from $5.3 billion in 2010 to $5.4 billion this year.
Lawmakers need to come together to tackle issues facing the state’s smallest schools, said Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, which represents about 144 schools.
“Education needs to become a priority on both sides of the aisle and they need to come to some compromise and understanding about what’s going to be best for our public schools,” Kaukl said.
Rural schools face numerous problems, including trying to live under revenue caps that essentially divert any new money into property tax relief, Kaukl said. About 50 rural districts asked voters this spring to approve spending referendums just to meet ongoing operational costs, and about 80 percent were approved, he said.
Barca and other Democrats called on Republicans to consider a longstanding proposal from state Superintendent Tony Evers to rewrite the state’s school aid formula to help address some of the problems facing rural schools.
The GOP education priorities for next session, as outlined Wednesday, include increasing access to broadband internet in rural areas, providing more aid to rural districts in recreational areas with high property values result in less state aid and providing all incoming high school freshmen with a free laptop computer.
“Having a laptop will be small solace if they can’t keep their doors open,” Barca said.