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Wisconsin Spotlight | Nov. 12, 2020

MADISON — Shrugging off a pandemic-battered economy and sinking state tax revenue, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is seeking $1.6 billion more in the upcoming 2021-23 budget.

DPI believes its request for $7.4 billion in the first year of the biennial budget, and $7.7 billion in the second, is a realistic and appropriate ask of taxpayers, some of whom are trying to figure out how they’re going to make their mortgage payments, let alone their property tax bills.

Republican lawmakers in control of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee say it’s unlikely DPI will get anything approaching what it’s asking for.

“It does not seem like a serious request,” said Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville). “We have so many unknowns going into this next budget period.”

The agency’s request includes north of $1.4 billion of new money for public schools, and over $200 million for parental choice schools.

Mike Thompson, DPI’s deputy state superintendent, told Fox47 the budget increase would go to special education, mental health aid and more “equity” programs. Translation: More funding for the kind of radical left curriculum teaching students that they live in a systemically racist, white supremacist country.

“We think it’s a realistic budget,” Thompson told the news organization, with a straight face. “We think it’s a budget that prioritzes what the citizens of Wisconsin want for educating their kids.”

Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), recently elected Senate president by his caucus, disagrees.

“Going into what will likely be a very tough budget, the Department of Public Instruction’s request is unrealistic. DPI is requesting an increase of $1.4 billion (for public schools) while Governor Evers himself directed state agencies to reduce their budgets, not increase them,” Kapenga said.

DPI already is operating on a record funding increase. The current budget boosted K-12 spending by about $650 million. That’s on top of fiscal year 2018, when school districts around the state spent on average $13,505 per student, according to the MacIver Institute. It was a $323 per-student increase from 2017.

A lot of taxpayers are asking what they’re getting for their investment. As more schools shift to clearly inadequate virtual education models with “asynchronous learning,” school districts acknowledge students across the board are losing out. For students stuck in the achievement gap, things are only getting worse.

Stroebel said he’s heard from taxpayers who want to see budget cuts to education, at the state and local levels as schools across the state stand empty.

“It’s a very fair question,” the senator said. “Certainly we have invested billions in the financial infrastructure of public education … It gives you serious pause.”

Stroebel is calling on schools districts to designate their teachers as “essential workers,” which would enhance the ability to move back to in-person learning.

The $1.6 billion budget bump from the agency Evers long presided over should come as no surprise. He campaigned in 2018 on raising the K-12 budget by the same dollar figure. 

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, told Fox47 that the troubling revenue picture will make it difficult to move much beyond flat funding. In April, Gov. Tony Evers’ administration was projecting a $2 billion, decline in state revenue, a decrease of about 10 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“So my concern is it is a wish list that is very unrealistic considering the financial times we found ourselves in,” Nygren said of DPI’s budget request.

Kapenga said he won’t support the funding request.

“(A)nd this just shows how out of touch and misguided these bureaucrats have become when enrollment is declining and performance is slipping,” the senator said.

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