The biggest question facing education in Wisconsin as the new year begins is what will emerge from the state Capitol’s partisan beehive in Madison.
There will be a lot of buzzing in the hive. Many people tend to get stung. The queen bees – there are several in this hive – will have many service bees following their lead, some completely loyal to one queen, some completely loyal to another.
And what will become of all the honey?
Every two years, activity in the hive reaches a peak as the honey is further divided. In the months ahead, activity is likely to be particularly intense, for three reasons: There is plenty of honey available, thanks to the country’s large surplus (last report is over $6 billion). The strange and often unpleasant circumstances of recent years have meant that there is a huge demand for honey. And the differences as to what to do with the honey are strong.
Next summer, what happened in the hive will set in motion important changes in nearly every school in Wisconsin, both public and private.
Again:What the Wisconsin election results mean for schools
And let’s also note that the big nest in Madison isn’t the only nest where education will be shaped in the coming months. Smaller nests across the state will also be crowded. There will be local school board elections in the spring and local school leaders will be making decisions about the impact of the new state budget and other developments as they look out for the next school year.
There is no good way to predict what all the activities in the nest will result in. But predictions about what issues will be discussed can set the scene.
Here’s a small sketch of the problem that will trigger the action in the hive:
Since the mid-1990s, states have imposed limits on general spending by school districts. Hat upgrades have been minimal in the last dozen years. Two years ago, the Republican majority in the legislature didn’t raise the limit at all, saying federal pandemic relief made it unnecessary. The end of pandemic money is in sight and the pressure on schools across the state has increased. So what will happen to the income cap for the next two years?
Private and charter schools
Under several Wisconsin programs for charter schools and private schools that enroll students using vouchers, annual payments per student run from about $8,400 to $9,100. Public schools earn more per student. Expect a strong push from voucher and charter advocates to narrow the gap. And Republicans remain committed to making private school vouchers more widely available statewide, which Democrats oppose.
The state pays local schools about 30% of the costs associated with students with special needs. That’s one of the lowest rates in the country. There has been advocacy – sometimes even bipartisanship – to bring it up. The problem will resurface, even though the prospects for major changes don’t seem good.
Again:Wisconsin’s special education fund covers only a third of school expenses
Last year’s reading scores at Wisconsin and nationally were not great and, in many places, abysmal. Across the country, there is growing advocacy for asking so-called literacy to guide instruction. That includes an emphasis on phonics. So far, several school districts in Wisconsin are moving in that direction, but overall action is limited. Will there be a push either at the Capitol or in more school districts in this direction?
Early childhood education and daycare
Federal pandemic relief maintained many programs for preschoolers in recent years, but those are coming to an end. Advocates see a crisis ahead to keep the program open. Will significant assistance be available?
There are many aspects to knowing how to attract and retain people – especially more talented people – to teach. Not much has been done in recent years to address this issue. Will there be fresh, serious efforts to improve the overall picture for teachers in Wisconsin or will things get progressively worse?
Mental health and related needs of children
There is almost universal agreement that students’ emotional needs increased before the Covid-19 period started in 2020, and then things got worse. This is one area where there has been an increase in aid from the state in recent years, with more money (but not a deluge) being made available to school psychologists and social workers and other assistance to children. Will more help come?
Again:Survey: Most Wisconsin teens know someone who has died of COVID or been hospitalized, experiencing high levels of anxiety
Local school politics
On the list of communities in Wisconsin, local education politics have in the last two years become increasingly polarized and fragmented. From gender issues to issues related to race to “parental rights” to general outrage at schools, things have been heating up in communities like Waukesha, Mequon, and Menomonee Falls. Where will all this go in 2023, with so many school board elections coming up and with unresolved tensions around various issues? Has his anger peaked?
Will a compromise emerge?
If Republican Tim Michels wins the gubernatorial election, it’s clear where many of these issues will go (not to mention what will happen to Michels’ support for sweeping changes at Milwaukee Public Schools). But Democrat Tony Evers won a second term and the Capitol remains divided along partisan lines.
This has been a recipe for deadlock on many educational issues since 2019, to the point where there is almost no communication between the queen bees in the hive. But Evers and Republic leaders Robin Vos and Devin LeMahieu have at least had the conversation recently.
Vos has provided the prospect of more money for public schools in exchange for expanding the availability of vouchers statewide. It wasn’t an easy sell for Democrats (and probably many Republicans), but at least it has some sense of the kind of commerce that has been part of the legislative process historically.
And what if leaders decide they’re going to put partisanship aside, talk about what kids need and what’s possible, using creativity and courage and learning from elsewhere, to increase educational success rates for kids statewide?
Sometime in the summer, the hectic activity in Madison’s beehives will die down. Somehow, the budget for the next two years will emerge. And it will become clear what portion of honey has been distributed, and who got the best portion.
Alan J. Borsuk is a senior researcher in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Contact him at [email protected].
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This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin education predictions for the 2023 legislative session