GOP bill would increase funding for rural schools
Two Republican lawmakers are proposing legislation that would boost funding for rural schools by almost $10 million after a similar provision was carved out of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2017’19 budget.
Under the bill, proposed by Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Jeff Mursau (R-Crivitz), rural schools would see a $9.7 million increase next year in so-called “sparsity aid” that is awarded to districts with relatively few students spread over large geographic areas.
The amount is about half of the $18 million increase in sparsity aid the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee removed from Walker’s proposed budget during deliberations in late August.
“This bill will provide small rural districts with additional resources to improve staffing and technology and ultimately improve student outcomes,” said Marklein, who was circulating the bill for cosponsors this week.
Both Walker and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, one of his Democratic challengers for the 2018 election, are endorsing the measure — each taking credit for the original idea in their own budget proposals.
“Rural communities have unique challenges,” Walker said in announcing his support for the bill at school districts in Marinette, Chippewa and Lafayette counties on Tuesday.
Evers said he was pleased with the bill, but that he would like to see lawmakers also take up a provision Walker vetoed that would have raised funding for districts that were locked in at lowspending amounts when the Legislature imposed revenue limits in 1993.
“I like the bill; I’m happy to see it go forward. But I’d like someone to take up the low-revenue funding at the same time,” Evers said after a meeting of the state’s task force on rural schools in Whitehall on Wednesday.
Rural schools face a host of challenges, including high transportation costs and falling revenues as enrollments decline.
The Marklein-Mursau bill would increase the per-pupil sparsity aid for rural districts — those with 745 or fewer students and fewer than 10 pupils per square mile — to $400 in the 2018-’19 school year, up from $300 this year.
In addition, it would create a second tier of schools with 746 to 1,000 students that would receive an additional $100 per student.
Walker had initially sought an increase of $18 million in sparsity aid over the biennium as part of his $76 billion budget, but the Joint Finance Committee eliminated that provision in August.
It left intact another provision that would have raised the revenue caps for low-spending districts, a measure that would have helped many rural schools. But Walker vetoed that item last month.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) criticized the measure as a gimmick. And she called out Marklein for what she described as his “misplaced priorities” for supporting Walker’s $3 billion incentive package aimed at luring Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group to Racine County.
“As school districts continue to struggle with tight budgets, teacher shortages and growing classroom sizes, Republican lawmakers approved the largest state taxpayer giveaway to a foreign corporation in U.S history,” she said.