State aid increase for Wisconsin schools up for vote

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MADISON — Increasing funding for public schools, a centerpiece of Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget, is up for committee approval Monday as lawmakers vote on the final remaining pieces of the two-year spending plan.

The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee was scheduled to decide whether to increase aid to public K-12 schools by the $648 million Walker proposed. Total spending on K-12 education would increase 6.4 percent under Walker’s budget.

Numerous other issues affecting schools, including whether to loosen income requirements for the statewide voucher program, were also to be decided.

The votes are among the last for the committee to make before the entire $76 billion budget goes to the Assembly and Senate for final approval. Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature have said they want to pass the budget — which was due July 1 — by mid-September. The budget hasn’t been this late since 2007, when control of the Legislature was divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Walker has touted the school aid increase as he prepares to run for a third term for governor next year. In 2015 as Walker prepared to run for president, he proposed a $127 million cut to K-12 schools, which the Republican-controlled Legislature reversed. Walker has been working to rebuild his approval rating ever since his presidential run as he prepares for an expected run for a third term.

The heart of Walker’s education proposal would allow for per-student spending increases of $200 this year and $204 next year, at a cost of about $505 million. Walker had originally called for teachers at the school districts to pay at least 12 percent of their health care costs, consistent with the Act 10 law that effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers.

Schools balked, arguing the additional mandate was an unnecessary burden to receive the money. Walker has said he’s receptive to changes and separate alternative education funding plans put forward by the Senate and Assembly did not include the requirement.

The budget committee was also to vote on making it easier for families outside of Milwaukee and Racine to qualify for the private school voucher program.

Current income limits are 185 percent of the federal poverty level, but there have been talks of raising it to 300 percent, which is the cut-off to participate in the Milwaukee program. If the change is made, the income cut-off for a family of four would increase from $45,263 to $73,401.

The committee also planned to approve Walker’s $803 million budget on state building projects. About $361 million of that would be placed in a fund for projects not specifically enumerated. That could include many across the University of Wisconsin System that were not approved. The university asked for nearly $795 million but was approved for only $128 million.

Projects that would be approved include $75 million for a new crime lab and regional law enforcement facility in the Milwaukee area; $12.4 million for the state veterans home at King to improve water quality, the electrical system and cooking and meal delivery equipment; and $11 million to remove and replace the Little Falls Dam at Willow River State Park.