Friday’s Budget Amendments Compound the Problems for School Districts

Friday, May 29, 2015 at 8:05 PM by

Last week the legislature’s budget committee made many changes that will shake up K-12 education in ways that reduce control by elected school boards and siphon funding away from public school districts.  We thought that part of the budget was done, but today the committee’s “omnibus motion” on the UW System compounds the problems for some of the school districts in the state by creating new mechanisms for the creation of independent charter schools without the approval of school boards.

As Molly Beck of the WI State Journal reported this evening:

If approved, the UW System would be required to create a new office within four months to authorize independent charter schools in school districts with more than 25,000 students — Madison and Milwaukee — without local school board approval.”  

Although the Milwaukee and Madison districts have the most at stake, the new changes don’t stop there.  The omnibus motion, approved this evening on a party-line vote, would also allow independent charter schools to be approved in several other ways: a) in Waukesha County by the County Executive; b) by the Gateway Technical College District Board in Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties or an adjacent county; and c) by an accredited tribal college in the county it is located in or in an adjacent county.  

 This expansion of charter schools exacerbates the budget problems for public schools caused by the committee’s previous actions, which create a mechanism to siphon funding away from public schools to finance the expansion of private school vouchers.  The same type of funding shift would finance the new charter schools, which can potentially be operated by for-profit entities.  

A May 28 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) provides a rough estimate of the budget consequences to public schools of the funding transfer for greatly expanding school vouchers.  As a Journal Sentinel article by Erin Richards and Andrew Hahn reported this morning:

Sending thousands more students to private, religious schools under an expansion of Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program could shift $600 million to $800 million out of public schools over the next decade, according to an analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau

That LFB memo is worrisome enough, but it does not include the additional cost to school districts of using the same type of funding shift for the new charter schools. 

In a related development today, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos released a short LFB memo that provides additional perspective on the size of the shift for the voucher program.  Based on that memo, Vos said in a press release that the transferred funding “equals less than 1 percent of K-12 education spending over the next decade.” Speaker Vos makes a legitimate point, and the LFB memo he requested is a useful addition to the policy debate. However, I think the more relevant point is that the funding shift is very large relative to meager growth in revenue for public schools. 

We explained in a May 21 blog post that frozen revenue caps for school districts and the shifts to voucher schools will mean that public schools will be able to spend less than one-fourth of the $208 million increase for K-12 education in the biennial budget bill.  Today’s vote to create ways for circumventing school board approval of charter schools could make the problem even worse than we thought a week ago. 

Jon Peacock   

5 Responses to “Friday’s Budget Amendments Compound the Problems for School Districts”

  1. Gee says:

    How is today’s action new? See re UW-Milwaukee charter schools: https://uwm.edu/education/community/charter-schools/

    • Jon Peacock says:

      That’s a good question. I should have mentioned that there are currently four methods of creating independent charter schools without the approval of a school board. They can be authorized by UW-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Area Technical College, the Milwaukee City Council, and UW-Parkside (which can only establish one). As of last year, I believe there were 23 independent charter schools – 22 in Milwaukee and one in Racine.

      The motion approved Friday creates four more ways they can be created, including by the Waukesha County Executive. That position will soon be occupied by Senator Paul Farrow, who is an advocate of charter schools.

      I think the more important of the new mechanisms is the portion requiring the Board of Regents to create a new “Office of Educational Opportunity” within the UW system. The Director of that office will be authorized to create independent charter schools in districts with at least 25,000 students – i.e., Milwaukee and Madison. However, once that office is created, I wouldn’t be surprised to see its authority expanded to other parts of the state.

      • Gee says:

        Thanks, but this reply still reads as theoretical. So, it remains surprising to see how many media apparently are unaware that many of those in Milwaukee are UWM charter schools already operational, for many years (https://uwm.edu/education/community/charter-schools/charter-schools-in-operation/). Perhaps the media do not recall their coverage of the surprise that Doyle dropped on UWM, when he announced in a gubernatorial address that the campus was mandated to set up K12 charter schools, and also at a time when the campus was struggling to maintain its own, post-K12 mission amid his budget cuts. (Then, too, budget cuts more devastating to the Milwaukee campus than to the Madison campus — and more devastating to Milwaukee residents than to the rest of the state.)

        So, in this as in other matters — and to term this not politely as a question but to be more clear: Apparently, what is new is that Madison is realizing, at last, that what happens in Milwaukee may not stay in Milwaukee.

        For decades, as we alone have had to deal with the destruction of our public schools — and, indeed, our city — we have tried to warn you. . . .

  2. Pat says:

    Jon,

    do you know if there is still a requirement for a high-quality record for charter schools? I think the budget previously stated that a charter had to have a superior performance record.

    This would at least give us something to monitor as these provisions start.

    Thank you,

    Pat

  3. old baldy says:

    Living in the rural north I am most concerned about the provision

    ” c) by an accredited tribal college in the county it is located in or in an adjacent county. ”

    This could have some devastating effects on our small districts. Our senator, Tiffany, has completely abandoned any support for education in his district. His main focus now is dismantling DNR .