Grim Days for Schools, with Grimmer Days Ahead

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 3:06 PM by

Severe budget cuts to public education in Wisconsin have resulted in thousands of job losses, larger class sizes, and fewer academic opportunities for students, according to a new survey. Many districts used the last of one-time federal money to fill this year’s budget holes, and anticipate that the cuts in the next school year will be the same or deeper than the cuts made this year. That means that the bleak condition of public education in Wisconsin is likely to stay the same or worsen next year.

In the 2011-13 budget, the Legislature made enormous cuts to the state’s public K-12 education system. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Wisconsin’s cuts to education were the second-largest in the country when measured on a dollars per student basis. Wisconsin schools will receive $635 less per student in state support in 2012 than in 2011.

The figures for reductions in state support are massive, but do not fully represent the revenue lost to schools. The budget also reduces each school’s per-pupil revenue limit by 5.5 percent in 2012. The result: More than half of districts will need to reduce the amount of money they raise through the property tax in order to stay under the lower limits, a University of Wisconsin professor has calculated. New levy figures indicate that property tax levies adopted by school districts in Wisconsin declined by $47 million, or one percent.

Proponents of the school financing changes argue that the cuts in state aid are more than offset for most districts by cuts in the employer share of benefits. However, the survey found that districts reduced their staff by a total of 3,400 positions, which includes a loss of 1,700 teachers. Retirements are about 2.5 times greater than in the past, reducing the number of experienced teachers teaching in schools. Eighty-nine percent of students attend schools with staff cuts, and 69 percent attend a school that reduced the number of teachers in classrooms. (A representative of Governor Walker noted that cuts have not occurred in every district.)

Districts also increased class sizes to help balance their budgets. Forty-four percent of districts reported increasing the size of their elementary classes. This increase in classroom size comes on top of a steady increase in the number of students per teacher in Wisconsin schools over the last couple years. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of students per teacher in Wisconsin increased by four percent while the national average moved in the opposite direction, decreasing by three percent.

A third path that schools have taken to deal with the cuts is to reduce the number and breadth of academics offered to students. More than one-third of districts have implemented course reductions in core courses, and nearly half have reduced course offerings in art, music, or physical education.

Wisconsin schools would be even worse off in the wake of the budget cuts if it weren’t for one-time federal funding aimed at reducing the impact of state budget cuts on classrooms. Half of responding districts reporting using this one-time stimulus funding to help patch their budgets, while the other half of districts do not have any of this money left. And only sixteen percent of responding districts anticipated fewer cuts next year than this year.

Unfortunately, all signs point to next year being as bad or worse in terms of job losses and changes in classroom environment.

Tamarine Cornelius

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