- Associated Press - Sunday, February 5, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker wants to pump $649 million more into K-12 schools, with more than half a billion dollars of that targeted to spend in the classroom rather than diverted to lowering property taxes.

Walker’s proposal - which comes as he’s expected to seek a third term in 2018 - would increase the state’s share of total education costs to 64.6 percent, its highest level since 2009.

“Overall, it will probably surprise a lot of people,” Walker told reporters on Friday in a briefing outlining the proposal. “We’re investing in our priorities and priority No. 1 is education.”

Walker, who has cut K-12 funding by about $1 billion since taking office in 2011, said an improved economy makes it possible to increase spending now. He promised that other unspecified taxes would be cut in the budget he unveils Wednesday, beyond a promised sales tax holiday.

Walker’s per-student funding increase of $200 next year and $204 the year after matches what state Superintendent Tony Evers and a wide array of public school advocates, school boards and administrators had pushed for.

“There were a lot of people in the Capitol who thought they’d never get that,” Walker said. “The headline is this budget puts the most money in education, ever.”

Representatives of school boards and administrators praised the Republican governor’s proposal.

Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, thanked Walker for “prioritizing public schools in his budget” and for the proposed $200 per-pupil increase that the organization had sought.

“He’s answered our requests,” Rossmiller said.

Walker’s proposal also was praised by John Forester, director of the School Administrators Alliance, representing about 3,000 principals, superintendents and other administrators.

“There are many ways to use the state budget to help kids. Clearly, Governor Walker has structured his K-12 education initiatives to support educational opportunities for children throughout Wisconsin,” Forester said in a statement.

But Democrats criticized Walker for his previous K-12 spending cuts and said the governor’s proposal does not go far enough.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said Walker “is doubling down on his misguided effort to create one taxpayer subsidized private school program for the wealthy and a separate, underfunded public school system for Wisconsin’s working families.”

Shilling said anything short of a “full refund” of the $1 billion in K-12 cuts “will continue to hurt hardworking families who can’t afford to subsidize two separate and unequal education systems.”

Walker is sending the money to all schools - including private voucher and charter schools - as a categorical aid outside of the school aid formula. His office did not provide a breakdown of how much individual districts would receive under the plan.

Walker said that under his budget property taxes would be lower on average in 2018 than when he took office, continuing a downward trend.

Walker is also proposing $5.6 million in performance-based funding and $2.8 million in summer school grants for Milwaukee Public Schools. He also wants $6.5 million for school social workers, grants to connect students with mental health services and mental health diagnostic testing.

Improving mental health services was also a priority of groups representing the state’s 424 public school districts.

Walker is also proposing $2.9 million on a program that helps high school students earn college credit and $7.6 million on a special education transitional jobs program.

He had previously announced millions of dollars in targeted aid to rural districts.

Walker released new details of his K-12 spending plan before it was to be included as part of the two-year state budget he delivers to the Legislature on Wednesday.

The schools money will compete with all other spending in the state budget, including plugging a nearly $1 billion transportation funding hole, reducing tuition at the University of Wisconsin System and paying for Medicaid, prisons and all other expenses.

But with Walker making it a priority, and the education community supportive, it seems probable the Legislature will go along with something close to what Walker wants. Republican legislative leaders have said they want to increase K-12 funding and were waiting to see details from Walker.

Walker said he hoped the additional money would take the pressure off schools that have been increasingly turning to referendums for higher property taxes to pay for operations. Twice as many schools asked voters to approve property tax increases the past three years compared with between 2011 and 2013. In the past three years, 140 school referendums have been approved to exceed the revenue limit, based on data from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. That includes 58 in 2016.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bau

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