A new phenomenon is happening in Wisconsin – the accidental activist.

Beth LaBell is a parent in the Paris School District in Kenosha County. She had never attended a school board meeting – she didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in Madison.

But when budget cuts forced her school district to consider closing, LaBell got involved and worked to keep the school doors open. And when Scott Walker’s budget proposal threatened her district and the 423 other districts in Wisconsin, LaBell stood up again.

“I’m an accidental activist,” she said at a parent meeting held in Milwaukee. “I didn’t plan to get involved, but desperate times call for getting out of our comfort zone.”

Lisa Hennel, a teacher at Milwaukee’s Neeskara Elementary School and parent, wants more for her children and students than the ability to compete with children in other states and countries.

“I want them to create, cooperate, collaborate, reduce, recycle and reuse,”  she said. “I want them to be complete human beings.”

These two women and hundreds of others have recently become “accidental activists” in the battle against Walker’s budget repair bill and his proposed 2011-13 biennial budget. Their main focus has been the cuts and changes the governor has planned for K12 education across Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has a proud tradition of public education. In 1845, the first property-tax supported public school in Wisconsin opened in Southport (now Kenosha). Article 10 of the WI Constitution provides for tax-supported public schools for all children aged 4-20 , a school fund with distribution based on student population and which also creates the state superintendent’s position. In 1856, the first Kindergarten in the nation was started in Watertown.

Walker’s plan for K12 education

Gov. Walker has proposed $834 million in cuts to state education aid, ending teacher residency requirements, eliminating the 180-day school year and cutting categorical aids for select educational programs.

Walker proposes an end to Advanced Placement classes, alcohol and drug abuse prevention programming, alternative education and at-risk classes. English for Southeast Asian students, academic achievement programs, and supplemental science, technology, engineering and math programming would also be eliminated under the governor’s proposal. In addition, many school districts will be forced to cut art, music and physical education along with SAGE programming to meet lowered state revenue limits.

Walker would impose revenue limits (the amount of state aids and property tax levy designated to a program) on school nursing programs, transportation, safety equipment and security officers. These services were exempt from revenue limits in previous budgets.

The Governor also wants to reduce the amount of district revenue available for each student by 5.5 percent in 2001-12 and freeze it the second year. On average, it would be a loss of $500 in revenue per student. Under current law, student revenue limits would automatically increase by $275 funding the 2011-12 school year and another $280 in 2012-13.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, this provision alone would reduce school spending an additional $1.68 billion over two years.

Jeff Pertl, a DPI Assistant, told an education forum in Milwaukee that MPS  has a per student revenue limit of $10,400 this year. Walker’s proposal would drop the limit to $9,548 for each of the next two years, while fixed costs for fuel, utilities and union contracted wages continue to increase.

Other districts in the region don’t fare much better: Wauwatosa’s revenue limit is $10,628 per student, Walker’s proposed limit would be $10,043 (a $585 drop); Cudahy currently spends $10,787 per student, it would drop to $10,193 (a $594 drop); and Racine’s spending would fall from $9,855 per student to $9312 (a $543 drop) in each of the next two years.

Changes to School Choice and Charters

Walker proposes an expansion and change to the Milwaukee School Choice program. He would add $22.5 million in funding to the program to cover estimated enrollment increases after the lifting of the program’s enrollment cap. His plan would allow enrollment in private schools across Milwaukee County (not just the city), drop the use of WCKE testing requirements for choice schools and only look at federal poverty guidelines when initially enrolling at a choice school.

Thet last provision could lead to students with family incomes above the current federal poverty levels attending choice schools at taxpayer expense.

Pertl added that the DPI doesn’t like the WCKE testing either, but “if choice schools are receiving public funding, it requires public accountability.”

Walker says he would also reform charter schools. Currently certain public school districts and approved educational institutions run charter schools in the state.  These schools are considered public but are released from some of the restrictions and contractual ties that bind the hands of typical public schools.

The governor is proposing an expansion of this program, adding $18.4 million in funding and expanding the number of students attending charter schools by 16,800 students in the next two years. Walker’s plan would allow any UW four-year campus to start charters and lifts restrictions on the current charters run by UW-Parkside.

Of course, this educational change includes some controversy – namely, the governor’s plan to eliminate the teaching license requirement for charter school employees. A charter teacher would simply need a Bachelor’s Degree to stand before a room full of students.

“Tools” for savings

While there are massive cuts, Walker said the school districts will have the “tools” to bear the reductions in funds. The changes to collective bargaining and the requirement that unionized teachers pay 5.6 percent of their pension contribution and 12.8 percent of their health insurance premium will provide “overall savings for schools across the state (that) will outweigh reductions, ultimately allowing schools to put more money in the classroom,” according to Walker.

On March 16, Walker said $488.7 million could be saved across all school districts in 2011-12 just by implementing the employee contributions. Another $78.9 million would be saved by taxpayers through the lowered revenue limits.

But State Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts asked the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau to do an independent studyof the governor’s  savings figures, and the LFB came up with a completely different conclusion.

“Gov. Walker’s education budget numbers are seriously flawed, and it is imperative that as the budget moves forward we work to resolve these errors so students aren’t penalized by the (sic) Governor Walker’s math mistakes,” Pope-Roberts said.

The LFB noted Walker doesn’t take into account those districts that have existing contracts in place that don’t require the pension and health insurance contributions. Plus, the governor overstates revenue projections by an average of $130,000 per district. In MPS alone, his revenue estimate was off by over $12.5 million.

According to the LFB, Gov. Walker savings projections were correct for only three of the state’s 424 districts. Pope-Roberts forwarded the LFB’s findings to the governor.

“Gov. Walker’s revenue projections do not account for a reduction in state aid, which will result in increased property taxes to make up for lost revenue,” Pope-Roberts said. “I am particularly troubled by the notion that Gov. Walker is trying to use some accounting tricks to mask devastating cuts he is proposing to public education.”

Becoming an accidental activist

Pertl, LaBell and Hennel had advice for parents, grandparents and friends of children: Speak up for education in Wisconsin.

Testimony on these budget proposals is currently being taken across the state before the Joint Finance Committee. On Monday, April 11, the JFC will hold a hearing at the Exposition Center at State Fair Park in West Allis. The public hearing will take place from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

“Ultimately it is about your stories,” Pertl said. “What would you say? What does education mean for your kid?”

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