Photo by WJFW Newswatch 12
Democratic legislator, Northwoods superintendent agree: increase special education funding
Story By Dan Hagen
Local News Published 06/11/2021 5:18PM, Last Updated 06/11/2021 10:45PM
Wisconsin - Governor Tony Evers (D-Wisconsin) proposed $1.4 billion for education funding in the state budget. Republicans on the state's budget-writing committee responded by committing about $128 million and putting aside $350 million without commitment.
The state's nonpartisan budget office sent a memo on June 9 saying this could cost the state $2.3 billion in federal K-12 education funding. This is because the Republican proposal does not maintain education funding levels from previous years. To qualify for the federal funding, Republicans need to commit $387 million more.
"This idea that we're going to withhold $350 million – that was a bad idea," said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). "Whoever came up with that – they're just going to have to admit that was a mistake."
Rep. Goyke is one of four Democrats on the state's 12-member budget-writing committee called the Joint Finance Committee. He wants the Republicans to commit the withheld money for special education reimbursement.
"The best bang for our buck is to put that $350 million into special education and send it out to school districts across the state," said Rep. Goyke.
It's an opinion Goyke shares with School District of Florence County Superintendent Ben Niehaus.
"If you took every penny and put it into special ed.," said Niehaus. "Every kid, every taxpayer, every school district is going to win."
Special education funding affects more than special education. Let's look at Niehaus's district in Florence County. It spent about $900,000 on special ed. in the 2019-2020 school year. The state reimbursed the district 27 percent of that. Which leaves $657,000 the district has to pay for. This takes money away from the rest of the district.
If the state reimbursed special education more, districts could spend more on other things. Niehaus said he'd put it toward mental health and trades education.
"Put it all in special ed. funding and then everybody wins," said Niehaus. "Every school district in the state of Wisconsin is going to benefit."
The Governor proposed putting $700 million more on special education funding. This projects to be reimbursement rates of 45 and 50 percent for the next two years.
Niehaus says there is money available to increase special education funding. On June 8 the legislative fiscal bureau announced the state's tax revenue over the next three years will be 4.4 billion dollars more than what was previously projected.
"It's for sure there and doable if they would put the politics aside and look at the numbers they're getting from legislative fiscal bureau and what they know they have," said Niehaus. "They can make this happen."
Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) is the lone Northwoods legislator on the Joint Finance Committee. WJFW requested interviews several times dating back to last week. Sen. Felzkowski's staff said via email she was too busy.