By LaKeshia Myers
This week Republican lawmakers met to discuss education funding for this biennium. According to news outlet Wispolitics.com, the GOP reached a deal to pump an additional $500 million into K-12 education, which includes a $97 million increase for special education. This falls extremely short of what was proposed in Governor Evers’ budget; Governor Evers’ budget proposal included a $600 million overall increase in education funding, including a $212.9 million increase to schools in Southeastern Wisconsin (where our largest school districts are located).
The governor’s budget also calls for an increase in funding and categorical aid, increasing the special education reimbursement rate from twenty-five percent to sixty percent by 2021.
Additional measures include increasing the reimbursement rate for high-cost special education from 90 percent to 100 percent and converts high-cost special education aid from a sum
certain to a sum sufficient appropriation, and $7 million over the biennium in additional funding for special education transition readiness grants. These increases are necessary due to the services needed to educate students with special needs.
As a former special educator, I understand what it takes to educate a student with special needs. I also realize the term “special education” is often met with a negative connotation and most people do not understand what services can be involved when a student has an identified disability. Students who have identified needs may require additional academic service aids to help them be successful in school for example, students with writing disabilities, may need speech-to-text aids that will allow them to submit written assignments.
While a student who has a more severe physical disability may need a dedicated aid to be with them throughout the school day. Each child is different and schools must work to meet the goals outlined in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP); this is not a suggestion—it is federal law. But if school districts continue to get less and less funding this is becoming increasingly more difficult.
It is extremely disturbing to me that Republican legislators continue to say the governor’s education plan is too costly. I wonder why this level of fiscal conservatism was not shown when the Foxconn deal was scribbled on a slip of paper and they allowed $3 billion of Wisconsin taxpayer money to be given away to a Chinese company that has failed to produce a plan of action or a significant amount of jobs?
Or why Senator Luther Olsen, co-chair of the Blue-Ribbon Commission on School Funding, and Joint Finance member would say, “If he [Governor Evers] vetoes it, who knows when we’re going to get to a conclusion, and they need to get their books in order for this next year…they want certainty.” This is nothing more than a power play and an axiomatic act of taking Governor Evers “out to the woodshed”.
But look at who gets hurt in the process, Wisconsin students. Under this “compromise” Wisconsin school districts are still left behind. Budget cuts are still a reality, school districts may be forced to close schools, teachers and paraprofessionals may be given pink slips, and classrooms will continue to swell.
Our kids deserve the best. Our schools need investment and consistent funding. The people of Wisconsin overwhelmingly want to see changes to how our schools are funded. 73% of Wisconsinites across party lines support an increase in special education funding, including 62% of Republicans.
Governor Evers’ budget makes sure that school districts can provide the needed resources to special education students while taking the burden off of local property taxpayers.
I represent the state’s largest school district (Milwaukee Public Schools) as well as the 13th largest district (Wauwatosa) and the needs are similar in both districts. Our children (and our school districts) need an increase in special education funding which has been frozen for over a decade. Both districts would like to be fully funded, have the resources necessary to offer all students quality academic programming, and to have enough professional staff so that classes can be at a manageable number.
Failure to address the issue of special education funding in the budget is not an option. Every student, regardless of zip code or level of need, has the right to a quality public education. Our children deserve the best and it is our responsibility as legislators to ensure they get it. Every child, every chance, every day.
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Courier.