From every angle, the funding prospects for Wisconsin's public schools look gloomy. The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) have run deficits for the past three years.4 In fact, MPS has already had to cut spending by roughly $45 million over two years.5 The biennial Wisconsin budget that was enacted last year authorized education spending for the 2002 fiscal year that fell short of the Department of Public Instruction's request by $100 million.6
Although Gov. Scott McCallum has promised not to further reduce state aid for Wisconsin's 426 public school districts, there are strong indications that he will not be able to stick to this promise. Already, he has proposed capping payments to cover the interest costs for school construction.7 This reduction in state aid would come at a very tough time. For even maintaining present levels of support for public education would not begin to meet the urgent needs of the state's schools. According to a 1996 GAO study on the condition of U.S. school facilities, 82 percent of Wisconsin schools needed extensive repairs or, in some cases, needed to be totally replaced.8 Additionally, revenue caps that restrict the ability of local districts to raise money have hampered efforts to improve school facilities.9 By the 1999-2000 school year, at least 60 percent of Wisconsin superintendents reported that they had cut funds for school maintenance and improvements in order to keep within their budget limits.10
The governor's intention to continue the current funding system for vouchers-surcharge and all-fumbles a major opportunity to protect scarce funding.11 Indeed, if Gov. McCallum and legislators fail to rectify the voucher surcharge, there could be both serious short- and long-term consequences-far beyond the cuts in school construction spending that he has already announced.
Some observers have reacted skeptically to the governor's insistence that school districts will be spared from other cuts. As one county executive predicted, "I think there's going to be some bloodshed, to say it lightly, and that is going to include education also."12 There are several reasons to expect the governor will move to reduce the state's support for education.
First, the governor used his broad, line-item veto powers more than 300 times last year before signing off on the budget. These McCallum vetoes included cuts of more than $30 million from the state education budget.13 Specifically, some of the governor's vetoes limited the ability of schools to recruit and retain qualified teachers-by capping salaries and other teacher contract provisions-and to provide services to the deaf and hearing-impaired. Other McCallum vetoes cut after-school programs and substantially reduced the scope of a program which helps prepare minority students to gain admission to four-year colleges. Finally, the governor's veto of a limited increase in districts' revenue caps denied public schools more than $20 million annually.14
Second, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Gov. McCallum will be studying "whether the state can continue to meet its [public school] funding commitment in the long haul."15 Third, another report by the newspaper noted recently that "the governor likes parts" of a controversial state Assembly proposal that would freeze state aid to schools next year.16
Efforts to build new public schools, recruit and hire new teachers, and fund critically needed reforms are at issue. How sadly ironic that the voucher surcharge has been allowing Milwaukee's private and religious voucher schools to "raise low salaries" and "otherwise gain a more solid financial footing"17 while undercutting the ability of the public schools to do the very same thing. The $28 million lost to the voucher surcharge would cover only a portion of the $190 million in additional state aid needed for next year, it is true-but this amount is by no means insignificant. Consider, for example, that a proposed freeze in state education aid next year would force the Milwaukee Public Schools to cut $23 million in existing programs.18 Such cuts, hypothetically, would be unnecessary if an extra $28 million had remained in the state's coffers. This is but one example of ways in which the level of resources now being squandered on the voucher surcharge could be put to immediate, productive use in the public schools.
Even worse, the voucher surcharge-if allowed to grow as it grew over the two years of this study-could soon become a financial time-bomb that seriously impedes the state's ability to fund even highly successful programs such as the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) which-despite its proven success-already survived one attempt to have its budget cut during last year's legislative session.19 This class-size reduction program has been documented to raise achievement for low-income students.20