There are dueling reports on the future of rural schools in Wisconsin. Democrats who served on the Speakers Task Force on Rural Schools introduced their own set of recommendations, separate from that issued by the entire bipartisan panel.
Representative Fred Clark, the Baraboo Democrat who served as task force cochairman, said declining enrollment and equitable school funding need to be addressed. “And also be sure that we are not adopting policies that contribute to declining enrollment, and that we’re clear that as a legislature, that if we want to increase privatization of public schools, that it will come at the expense of rural schools throughout this state,” Clark said at a Democrats-only Capitol press conference on Wednesday.
“They really didn’t even bother to ask the chair, who’s worked in a bipartisan fashion the entire time,” said Speaker Robin Vos, referring to Rhinelander Republican Rob Swearingen. “He shared the report with them beforehand, he wanted to seek their input, and what we saw today is just another partisan effort to try to draw divides on education, and I think that’s a shame.”
Superintendents from across Wisconsin met with task force as part of the process of preparing the report, which among other things recommends some modifications to the state’s often contentious school funding formula. as well as increased funding for things like technology and transportation.
“I think all of us as task force members have come to understand in a way that we didn’t before, that we cannot afford to let our rural schools fail,” said Clark. Democrat Mandy Wright of Wausau said Assembly Democrats had already proposed solutions to several of the problems identified in the report.
“We proposed and pulled to the floor a sparsity aid bill, a rural teacher loan forgiveness bill, and Fair Funding for Our Future. And all three of those very specific bills . . . were voted down on a party line vote,” Wright said.
“They were never voted against,” said Vos. “Democrats tried to do pulling motions, which are just political gotcha, so they were never voted against. But the problem that I think sometimes Democrats have is they have to actually work with Republicans in a Republican legislature if they want to get something done.”
“I don’t know how realistic in the short run a wholesale change to the (school funding) formula there is,” Vos said. “Many people in rural Wisconsin would be frustrated by the amount of money that we spend in Milwaukee and the poor results that we get. So I think there’s frustration in a lot of ways. It’s not just with the money that goes to rural districts, it’s the money that’s misspent in other districts. The formula has to take all of those things into account.”