Some suggestions for the governor and legislative leaders to improve the K-12 budget

Governor Evers’ recent comments to the media indicating that he plans to reach out to Republican legislative leaders before the Assembly and Senate meet to take up the state budget bill got us thinking.

We’d like to take this opportunity to suggest some things we would like to see the governor and legislative leaders discuss seriously in any negotiations they might undertake.  These are modest asks. The spending increase provided by the JFC budget for K-12 education in 2019-21 is over $130 million smaller than the increase provided by the 2017-19 state budget.  We respectfully suggest policy makers revisit a couple of issues that if adopted could make this a better budget for schools.

Our first priority would be to see an increase in special education categorical aid in the first year (2019-20) of the budget.

Prior to the final JFC vote, the WASB had encouraged the governor’s office to push for higher funding levels for special education categorical aid in the first year (2019-20) of the budget. We argued that such an increase could be funded by using some of the one-time state surplus generated by federal tax reform (see previous post). We also pointed out that such an increase would not create a new ongoing obligation under federal maintenance of effort (MOE) requirements so long as it did not exceed the increase already approved by the JFC for the second year (2020-21) of the biennium.

We argued that such an increase in 2019-20 would help to ensure that all districts, especially those with declining enrollment and thus decreasing revenue limit authority, would receive an increase in spendable resources that would match inflation and would not increase property taxes.  We would encourage such a discussion between the governor and legislative leaders even at this late stage of the process.

Each one percent increase in the special education reimbursement rate would cost the state about $15 million. To get from 26 percent to 28 percent in the first year—i.e., to match the least costly option recommended by the very same Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding established by Assembly Speaker Vos and Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald–would cost only $30 million or so. To go all the way to 30 percent would cost about $60 million more, an amount less than two-tenths of one percent of the General Fund budget approved by the JFC and about seven hundredths of a percent of the overall All Funds budget approved by the JFC.

Another set of priorities would be: a) to restore some of the TEACH funding targeted to small and rural schools that is being eliminated under the JFC budget and b) to give the needs of students, schools and libraries greater priority in broadband expansion.

We were disappointed that TEACH training grants were eliminated and funding for infrastructure grants was sharply reduced in the JFC budget. The training grants were popular and well-utilized, making it hard for us to understand why they were eliminated. An alternative would have been to keep more money in TEACH grants and allow it to be used for infrastructure OR training. A very simple wording change might accomplish this.

Because TEACH funds derive from the federal school and library e-rate program, we are also very concerned that the JFC budget transfers $22 million in federal e-rate funds in each year of the budget (or $19.8 million more than the Governor proposed) to the Broadband Expansion Grant Program. We are concerned that this move permanently takes funding intended for schools and libraries away from schools and libraries and transfers it to a grant program that schools and libraries can’t even apply for. At a minimum, we want to see schools and libraries receive greater consideration in the prioritization of broadband expansion.

We also want to see the needs of students receive greater priority in broadband expansion. The state now spends about $9.2 million each year to provide every ninth grader in the state with a personal electronic computing device (i.e., a tablet or laptop). Yet, a great digital divide exists between students with adequate access to broadband service and students that lack such access. It does the state little good to provide every student with a laptop or tablet if they can’t use it for their homework assignment because they live 5 miles from their school and have inadequate or no broadband. It would be great if the state could elevate student needs when establishing priorities for broadband expansion.