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Education should not be a political football

Republican legislative leaders on the state’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) must use care not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when it comes to school funding as they continue their ongoing feud with Gov. Tony Evers.

Last Thursday, the JFC voted on the education portion of the state budget. As expected they removed most of what Gov. Evers, and school officials across the state, had asked for in increases. Their actions go so far as to put the state in jeopardy of losing $1.5 billion in federal aid.

The ostensible justification for eliminating the proposed increases was that schools are getting a boost with federal dollars under COVID-19 relief programs approved earlier this year by Congress. Rather than using the new federal aid to boost programs and address building and digital infrastructure needs, the legislature is instead viewing it as a way to shirk the state’s fundamental responsibility toward funding education, while sending out piles of press releases that disingenuously claim they are actually supporting public education.

The truth of the matter, is that education funding has become yet another political football. Given Evers’ long career in education, starting as a classroom teacher and moving to the principal and administrator level before ultimately serving as the head of the Department of Public Instruction, education has always been a high priority for him. In cutting the governor’s proposed budget for education, legislators struck a blow personally against Evers. Legislators sought to hit Evers where they knew it would hurt the most.

There can be room for discussion and disagreement about how much additional funding the state needs to bring to the table in light of the additional federal funding. However forcing districts to fund staffing and ongoing programs with one-time federal money while risking $1.5 billion in federal aid, is a step too far with the risk of pushing districts off a fiscal cliff. It jeopardizes the education of a generation of school children in order to score cheap political points.

If there is an absolute truth in government, it is that there is no such thing as free money. There are always strings attached and hoops to jump through to make sure the money is being spent the way that it was intended. The amount and stickiness of those strings gets greater the farther up you go, with federal funds having the most strings attached. School districts will have to use creative financing to make sure they are spending the federal money the way it is intended, with the risk that if they don’t do it right, local taxpayers could be on the hook to pay it back.

Wisconsin’s use of education as a political football has brought the state government to new lows as far as partisanship and dysfunction. Education is a cornerstone of the state’s motto, “Forward,” and to truly bring this promise state leaders need to set aside their political rancor and treat education as the nonpartisan issue it should be.