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Expert panel looks at school funding

By Lee Reinsch

GREEN BAY – Population, demographics and schools have changed over the past 25 years, but the way we fund public schools hasn’t.

That was one of the messages April 4 from a panel of education experts at a League of Women Voters of Greater Green Bay forum titled, “School Funding: A Time for Action.”

“Every school child deserves an equally excellent education, and there shouldn’t be a single exception to that,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “It shouldn’t matter what school district your parents want to live in; it shouldn’t matter if your parents speak English or not; it shouldn’t matter how much your parents are or are not paying in tax dollars; you should be able to enroll in any school district in this state and get an education as excellent as your neighbor’s.”

The state is not meeting its moral or ethical obligations to its kids when it makes the distance between the haves and have nots wider, Bourenane said.

In 2011, the state made a historically large cut to school funding – $1.6 billion in one biennium.

“We are currently not funding our schools at the level we were in 2009, and when adjusted for inflation, the cumulative loss would be $3.5 billion,” Bourenane said.

This crisis is exacerbated by inequities in the way school funding works and the way aid is allocated per pupil, she said.

Statewide, schools are allotted about $5,000 in state funding per enrolled child to pay for their education.

But it varies widely based on what district they live in, and sometimes the way it varies doesn’t correspond in any meaningful way to the fiscal reality of that child’s district, Bourenane said.

“Furthermore, the way we allocate public dollars in state aid to private, publicly funded schools is very different and is flat across the board,” she said. “You have students attending privately run charter schools who are getting up to $8,000 in state aid, up to the student who receives a special needs voucher at a privately run charter that doesn’t have to follow ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements, or the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) law, or even provide any special-education service to the child it’s getting paid $12,000 to serve.”

On top of that, in a previous budget, the state said costs above these levels for a student with disabilities attending a private school can be funded up to (and even in some cases, over) 90 percent, she said.

“In contrast, our public schools are at a historic low percent reimbursement rate, at just over 25 percent,” Bourenane said. “The state used to reimburse its schools 75 percent, but that has waned over the years, creating a $1 billion funding gap where schools have to borrow from their general funds to pay for their special education costs, costs we gladly incur because we can have all kinds of kids together, thriving together, in one class.”

Dr. Michelle Langenfeld, superintendent of Green Bay Public Schools and a member of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Funding for Education, said she found from its listening sessions across the state that parents want the best for their children.

“But the opportunities and resources they’re afforded were not equal,” Langenfeld said. “There were situations where children ride on a bus two hours a day to get to school; in other areas, the resources and funding for children with special needs just was not there. There were areas of the state with under-resourced communities and families that weren’t being addressed.”

Funding for schools accounts for nearly $1 out of every $3 of the state’s general revenue, more than any other single sector.

But across the state, districts don’t receive the same amount of state aid for a variety of reasons – declining enrollment numbers, for example, or high property values, such as those in some rural lake-area school districts.
Aid comes to schools under any of two dozen categories, including special education, sparsity aid (aid for small, sparsely populated districts), or pupil transportation.

The Blue Ribbon Commission had almost bipartisan agreement on everything but school vouchers, she said.
But people are more alike than they are different, Langenfeld said.

“People can be rural, suburban or urban … the needs are very, very similar,” she said.

But the focus should be on the children, and the fact that every student deserves a quality education, Langenfeld said.

“As we think about funding streams, we talked about fact that every child across the state is deserving of a high quality education; that was the focus and drive of the Blue Ribbon Commission,” she said. “It was bipartisan, because children don’t have any political affiliations.”

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