I strongly believe one of core pillars of what makes Wisconsin a great state is our dedication to a great education system, where every child has access to a quality education. It's such a part of who we are that it's actually in our state Constitution. Wisconsin must renew this value of supporting our local public schools, as it is crucial to strengthening our communities and state. Having strong neighborhood schools benefits everyone. Our kids will have more opportunities to live to their full potential. Even those who don't have children or whose children are grown enjoy the benefits of higher property values and community prosperity that come with having quality local public schools.
With Republicans at an impasse on the state budget that has a looming deadline, my Democratic colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee released a K-12 education plan that invests more than the governor's proposal and lowers property taxes by almost $25 million.
All of our children deserve a quality education. In order to achieve this goal, our schools must be a priority and be adequately and fairly funded. I'm proud to stand with my colleagues in standing up for our kids and fighting for their future.
The Dem education plan:
- Puts an additional $514 million in the general aid formula, while implementing State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers' Fair Funding proposal, and ensures equal treatment of all districts.
- Reduces property taxes statewide by increasing state support for schools. Compared to the governor's plan, Dem plan cuts property taxes by $25 million more.
- Retains the $200/$204 per pupil aid increases for all districts.
- Restores funding lost under Republican restrictions on low-spending districts in 2011, and increases funding for historically low spending districts beyond the Assembly Republican K-12 budget proposal.
- Increases special education funding for the first time in nearly a decade by close to $90 million.
- Restores $500 million in local revenue authority so districts can use the increased state funding for actual classroom instruction.
- Allows local taxpayers to decide via referendum if they want local tax dollars shifted to unaccountable voucher schools.
- Allows local communities to put in place school safety plans, save tax dollars with energy efficient projects, and combat alcohol and other drug abuse outside of spending limits.
The Dem education plan also incorporates key voucher accountability pieces from a bill that I introduced last session. We know that our students and neighborhood schools are still struggling to recover from the largest cuts to education in our state's history. The Dem plan recommits and invests in our kids and public schools, but also ensures that every school receiving taxpayer dollars is held to the same standards and accountability.
Under 2015 Senate Bill 3, and included in the JFC education plan, are the following provisions:
- Requiring Licensure for Voucher School Teachers
Require that all instructional staff of private schools participating in a choice program hold a license or permit issued by DPI.
- Administering Background Checks for Teachers, Administrators, and Staff to Keep Students Safe
Require each private school participating in the voucher program to conduct a background check of each teacher and administrator employed by the private school. Require private schools to conduct a background check before extending an offer of employment to a new teacher or administrator in the school, and conduct background checks annually. Prohibit a participating private school from employing a teacher or administrator who would not be eligible for employment in a public school as a result of the background check.
- Administer Early Reading Screenings
Require private schools participating in a voucher program to administer an assessment of reading readiness to students in 4-year-old kindergarten through 2nd grade.
- Create Similar Graduation Requirements as Public Schools
Require private schools to develop a policy for granting a high school diploma to voucher students that includes the requirements applicable to public school students under state law.
- Offer Due Process for Expelled Students
Direct DPI to promulgate rules establishing a procedure for the expulsion of students attending a private voucher school, and ensure that it is similar to that of public schools.
- Ban Corporal Punishment
Prohibit a private school participating in a choice program from subjecting a student to corporal punishment.
- Require Building Inspections for Safety Purposes
Require private schools located in a municipality that does not issue certificates of occupancy to annually obtain a building inspection of the school building before participation in the voucher program.
- Protect our Tax Dollars by Enrollment Limits
Ensure that Private Schools Participating in the voucher program only have 49% of their students receiving vouchers and specify that the total number of pupils residing in a district who can participate in the statewide choice program would be limited to no more than 2% of the district's prior year membership in 2017-18 and thereafter.
As the lead Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Education, I have met with all of the 7th Senate District school districts as well as with educators, experts, other legislators, and advocates in order to come up with legislation that puts our kids on the road to opportunity and prosperity. As a public school parent, I remain committed to ensuring each child gets the education and opportunity they deserve.
In addition to fighting for our children's future to be a priority in the state budget, I have introduced several pieces of pro-public education legislation. For instance:
- Bipartisan Character Education Bill (SB 329)
Republican Senator Alberta Darling and I introduced a bill that provides funding to the Department of Public Instruction for awarding grants to allow for teachers and school leaders to participate in professional development training in character education.
Our kids devote a lot their time in the classroom, which is a great opportunity to develop and reinforce the core values upon which character is formed.
Character education is a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about, and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others.
Schools like Brown Deer Middle/High School and school districts like South Milwaukee have been named Wisconsin Schools of Character and have been recognized for their exemplary character education programs. In fact, South Milwaukee is even recognized as a National School of Character.
This bill provides funding to the Department of Public Instruction for awarding grants to allow for teachers and school leaders to participate in professional development training in character education. This bill would also allow teachers and school district administrators to use their character education training toward any professional development requirements needed for their license.
- Special Education Reimbursement Rates (SB 211)
I introduced Senate Bill 211 to increase state aid to school districts for special education programs. Funding for special education categorical aid has been frozen since the 2008-09 school year. This bill would bring Wisconsin back to reimbursing special education rates to schools districts to 33%.
State aid that supports the education of students with disabilities has remained frozen since the 2008-2009 school year, but the cost to provide this education has continued to rise. This results in a continuing slide in reimbursement rates for special education costs that school districts incur and forces our already underfunded schools to spread their resources dangerously thin to try and accommodate all of the students in the district. For instance, they may have to have one nurse be responsible for several schools. This is problematic because some students require medications be administered multiple times a day.
The thinner vital school staff are spread, the more likely important student needs may not be met. In the very first year reimbursement rates were established, 1980, school districts were reimbursed at a rate of 66.1%. In the 1999-2000 school year, reimbursement rates were 34.3%. For the 2014-15 school year, the rate fell to just 26.8% of costs. We have an obligation to educate all students, including those with disabilities.
The Special Education Restoration Act would give schools their fair share of funding by bringing us back to reimbursing districts at a very modest 33%.
- Community School Start-Up Grants (SB 282)
Senate Bill 282 to creates a community school start-up grant program, which would allocate funds to public schools that focus on improving student learning, strengthening families, and working with community partners to provide additional services to families in the district.
Republicans have failed to invest in the services desperately needed in our schools and have neglected programming that is proven to be beneficial in supporting families and bolstering student achievement.
The community schools model takes a wraparound approach, which allows for more comprehensive, individualized services for students, such as academic support and enrichment activities, including expanded learning time and summer or after school enrichment and learning experiences; programs that promote parental involvement and family literacy; job training, internship opportunities, and career counseling services; and health services, including primary health, services by a school nurse, dental care, mental health counseling, and nutrition services.
Through the holistic approach of community schools, our schools will have the tools to address the complex range of factors that contribute to student learning.
See a video of the press conference unveiling SB 282, here.
- Public Education Reinvestment Act (PERA) (LRB 0996)
This legislation, proposed by Rep. Brostoff and me, would expand a smaller class size model statewide across all K4-12 grades, through the proven Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE). The benefits of having smaller class sizes are far-reaching and include students scoring higher in reading, language arts, and mathematics as well as evidence of higher graduation rates.
SAGE was established in 1996-97 school year and currently allows a teacher-to-student ratio of 18:1 for grades K-3. This bill would expand the program to 4K-12. Our bill would also invest an additional $2,250 for each eligible low-income student.
Smaller classes provide more opportunities for teacher-student interaction, with fewer disciplinary disruptions and allow teachers to tailor instruction to student needs. SAGE has been shown to result in students scoring significantly higher in reading, language arts, and mathematics.