In this context, and considering the urgent funding needs of both Milwaukee's and Wisconsin's public schools, the continued voucher surcharge compounds this budget crisis by carelessly discarding tax dollars. For example, eliminating either the two-year $28 million surcharge (1998-2000) or the estimated $25 million surcharge this year could virtually have made up for the education budget cuts made by Gov. McCallum last August. The public funds now going to private and religious schools-which do not have to account for how they are spending the money-could be used to provide desperately needed resources for public schools and the students they serve. The state's leaders can elect to change the voucher funding formula and abandon the voucher surcharge, making those millions of dollars available for the public schools. Until they do so, they will in fact be making choices for Wisconsin's public school students-choices with tough consequences.
Some specific examples of how resources now being diverted could better be spent on public education are outlined below. Recouping the estimated $25 million now being spent on the voucher surcharge could provide the resources needed to support any of these objectives:
The 1999-2001 biennial state budget created a $5 million appropriation for statewide grants to public school districts and consortia of school districts for alternative education programs such as expanding services or criteria for at-risk youth programs, truancy abatement programs and parental involvement.33 Funding requests exceeded the appropriation by more than a three-to-one ratio: DPI received 139 proposals from public schools-proposals that would have required funding of more than $15 million. However, with only $5 million available, only 60 schools statewide could be awarded grants, and only one of these schools is in Milwaukee.
Additional funding would enable schools across the state, including Milwaukee, to provide more of these important alternative programs that particularly benefit some of the most needy students.34
The 1999-2001 budget provided $47 million for special education programs. Since districts are required to provide special education services, any shortfall in the state allocation must be made up at the district level. As it is, the state reimburses only 30-32 percent of these costs, forcing schools to sacrifice their regular programs in order to fully fund special education.35 Rather than pick up an increasing share of special education funding in its 2001-2003 budget, the state has provided no increase in special education.
According to Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, attorney for Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy, "this hurts all students, including those with disabilities, as all students have access to those regular education programs, which are regularly put on the chopping block-such as music, art and sports programs… [The] system created by the state legislature engenders hostility between parents of regular and special education students, and between regular and special education educators."36
Wisconsin faces the need for a massive overhaul and upgrading of its school infrastructure and technology. As noted earlier, a 1996 GAO study underscored the troubled condition of the state's public school facilities. A more recent study estimates the cost of necessary upgrades to Wisconsin's school facilities at $5.7 billion.37 Yet, Gov. McCallum has announced plans to cope with the projected budget shortfall by imposing a cap on the interest costs that the state will pay for new construction. The state pays two-thirds of these costs. By capping these payments, the state is expected to save $20 million annually.38
Meanwhile, communities are restricted in their ability to pick up the tab by the state-imposed revenue cap, which was first introduced in 1993 as a temporary property tax relief measure. And the governor vetoed an annual increase in these spending caps by 0.78 percent for the 2001-2003 budget.39
Ending the surcharge could provide more than enough money to make the governor's proposed cap on state aid for school construction unnecessary.