State Superintendent Tony Evers delivered his annual State of Education address Sept. 21 in the State Capitol in Madison.
Quoting extensively from U.S. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt in a speech with more political overtones than usual, Evers suggested the comments in a famous address by our nation’s 26th President provide advice for today’s Wisconsinites in the areas of improving school finance, fostering healthy students and connecting communities.
Evers said, “On school funding, we must face the reality that for too many budget cycles public school funding has not been the priority for those in control,” remarking that, “A decade ago, Wisconsin spent nearly 40 percent of its general tax dollars on public schools. Today, it has fallen to 32 percent. This is a question of priorities.”
Evers noted that, “For the first time in my memory, Wisconsin has fallen below the national average in how much we spend on our kids’ education. While other states have aggressively restored funding for public education after the Great Recession, we have remained stagnant. Wisconsin has a long way to go to catch up.”
Citing the growing influence community and parent groups are having on changing the conversation around school funding, Evers urged those groups to continue their activism, saying, “Now is the time for us to fix our broken school finance system and restore our investment in the next generation.”
Observing that, “there is a growing recognition that educating kids is about more than academics,” Evers commented that, “For the first time, the state is providing funds for mental health training, new social workers, and grants for school and community programs.”
Evers also noted, “Today, over a third of our students in rural Wisconsin rely on Medicaid for physical and mental health care,” remarking, “Without access to basic health care or nutrition, toothaches, blurry vision, hunger, and trauma quickly become barriers to our students’ success.”
Evers, an announced candidate for governor in 2018, opined, “We need to stop leaving money on the table and take the federal dollars associated with Medicaid. Every additional Medicaid dollar ensures more Wisconsin kids have the health care they need.” He added, “Rejecting our fair share of support from Washington means Wisconsin taxpayers are forced to pick up the cost. It is that simple, and it is hurting our schools when scarce state resources are increasingly directed to health care. This is a leadership decision completely within our control.”
Evers took notice that in Wisconsin “our growing school districts are attached to the major transportation grid, close to cities and near major employers,” and urged listeners to “remember that most Wisconsin school districts are small and rural,” and that in many rural districts, “enrollment is declining and transportation costs are growing.”
He chided lawmakers who, in his words, continue to advocate for collapsing school districts and closing schools, asking, “How long is too long for our kids to spend on the bus?” and lamenting that, “Every minute on a bus means less time for learning, play, or family.”
Commenting on the state of our state’s roads and the ongoing stalemate over transportation funding solutions, Evers asked, “If schools are the center of our communities, what happens when roads and bridges connecting those places begin to crumble?”
He concluded, “When it comes down to it, every dollar we shift from the state coffers to pay for roads, and increasingly, to simply pay for debt, is a dollar we move out of the classroom of a child,” adding, “I’m sick of the politics, the false choices, and the endless debates on this issue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Without question, we can fix our roads and fund our schools at the same time.”
The day’s events also included the Friend of Education Awards presentation and recognition of Wisconsin’s four Teachers of the Year for 2017-18.