Matt Pommer: Woes of rural schools could rise as election issue

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Matt Pommer
Monday, August 11, 2014

Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting law has not solved the woes of rural school districts. Declining enrollments mean less state aid, and Republican-led efforts to help private schools may grow as a gubernatorial campaign issue.

Walker has championed the expansion of voucher schools in which tax dollars flow to private schools. Walker also signed a special $30 million, GOP-developed income-tax break for families who send their children to nonpublic schools.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke would limit vouchers to Milwaukee and Racine and eliminate the $30 million tax break.

Arguments swirl around the quality of education in voucher schools and whether voucher schools should take students with special needs. But the real question is how to divide the state’s financial resources for education.

The situation facing rural schools was spelled out in a recent report by state Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, who was vice chairman of an Assembly Task Force on Rural Schools. The report noted that over two years, $544 million go to nonpublic schools.

“These are financial resources that are no longer available for public schools and are in many cases appropriated as a first draw on general school aids,” the report said.

Diversion of public funds toward private schools that now are receiving an amount of taxpayer financing helped create an “acute” situation for many school districts, according to Clark. Rural schools are facing “unique challenges,” he added.

Among the factors Clark cited are high costs of busing students in sparsely populated areas, technology needs, lack of access to broadband internet, and recruiting and retaining excellent teachers. Often the rural districts go to the voters to exceed spending limits.

“After years of reductions and budget cuts, many rural school districts are at a crisis point,” he said. “Without additional relief, many districts will need to eliminate more programs, close schools, or in some cases dissolve entirely.”

The idea of voucher schools across rural parts of the state could worsen declining enrollments, according to those close to public education. State School Superintendent Tony Evers notes that more than half of the state’s 424 districts have fewer than 1,000 students. The state-aid formula is tied to the property value behind each student.

The aid formula is a “double whammy” for rural districts with declining enrollments, Evers told the task force. These districts lose money because there are fewer students to count and they look richer “because there is more property value behind the remainder of their students,” added Evers.

He said the state-aid formula should consider the income levels of families in a district, not just the property values. That would face a lot of opposition in a Legislature with strong Republican links to well-to-do suburbs.

The report noted the costs of busing children to school. The Independence School District in Trempealeau County spends $275,000 per year to transport about 200 students, the task force was told. That amounts to about $775 per pupil. The state provided just $14,700 in bus aid to the district in 2012-2013. Other rural districts also feel the pinch.

Greg Doverspike, administrator of schools at Durand in Pepin County, sees bleak choices. Cutting bus routes means longer ride times. The alternative is cutting funds for classrooms.

The task force was told rural district teachers earn about 15 percent less than urban and suburban district teachers. Teacher often leave rural districts for higher pay in other parts of the state.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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