What the Wisconsin election results could mean for schools

[Milwaukee Journal Sentinel] What the Wisconsin election results could mean for schools

What the Wisconsin election results could mean for schools

With Gov. Tony Evers declaring victory Tuesday night, and Republican lawmakers failing to grab a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature, neither party has a green light for their agendas for Wisconsin schools. 

Instead, they will continue to battle as their constituents are deeply divided about what’s needed for Wisconsin schools, which were recently ranked as having the worst score gaps between Black and white students in the nation. 

Some voters Tuesday said schools need more resources to meet students' needs. Others said they thought schools had enough money but should walk back curriculum about race and gender identities.

In his victory speech, Evers thanked voters for supporting teachers, students and specifically transgender students. 

“You showed up for our kids, for our educators and staff in our public schools, because you believe as I do, what’s best for our kids is best for our state,” Evers said. “You showed up for LGBTQ folks and trans kids who want to be safe who they are in our state.”  

More:2022 Wisconsin Midterm Election Results

Wisconsin voters shared public schools as their second biggest area of concern, after inflation, on the latest Marquette Law School Poll released last week, with 62% of those surveyed saying they were "very concerned" about public schools. It ranked above crime, gun violence, election integrity, abortion, taxes, immigration and COVID.

What could lie ahead for Wisconsin schools

With Republicans still holding a majority in the Legislature, but without enough votes to override vetoes from Evers, the power dynamic is similar to the last legislative session. 

Evers has already signaled his intentions for Wisconsin schools. In September, he shared a $2 billion plan to boost education funding in the 2023-25 budget, with a focus on literacy, mental health and staff shortages in K-12 schools. 

Evers said the plan would be funded with the state's projected $5 billion budget surplus while "holding the line" on property taxes. 

More:Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers defeats Tim Michels to win second term in 2022 midterm election

Republican lawmakers could block that plan, as they have previously blocked Evers’ proposed funding increases for schools, though Evers has been able to funnel some extra money to schools with his power to allocate federal pandemic relief funding. 

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has already derided Evers' proposal, taking to Twitter to call the plan a "feeble ploy to try to win votes."

Evers plan includes:

More funding per student: Schools could spend $350 more per student in the 2023-24 school year and $650 more the following year (totaling $800 million)More for special education: State funds would reimburse school districts for more of their special education costs, from about 30% to about 45% in the first year, and 60% the next year (totaling $750 million)Mental health: The "Get Kids Ahead" initiative for school-based mental health services would grow by $100 per student, ensuring that each district has at least one full-time staff member focused on mental health (totaling $240 million)Other programs: The state would invest $20 million for before- and after-school programs; $10 million for literacy programming and a state literacy center that would provide training for teachers; and $5 million to help school districts implement financial literacy curriculumMeals: The state would reimburse school districts for more meal costs to provide free meals for students who already qualify for free and reduced-price meals, and decrease the cost to other students

Many school district leaders have said current funding levels do not allow them to keep up with inflation. Dozens of districts asked their voters to increase property tax funding for their local schools with referendums on the ballot Tuesday.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers could continue to push for their own agenda, even if their bills end with Evers’ veto pen. In the last session, lawmakers pushed several proposals that never made it into law, which may have found success had Michels won, including:

More funding for private schools: Republican lawmakers proposed expanding tax-funded vouchers to cover private K-12 school tuition for more students, regardless of income. Michels had also vowed to do this. Threatening protections for transgender students: Republican lawmakers supported a “Parental Bill of Rights” that would allow parents to sue school staff at public schools who use the names and pronouns chosen by their students if the parents disagree with those names or pronouns. It would also allow parents to review all curriculum materials and opt their children out of lessons. Michels said he supported this bill. Limiting teaching on race and ethnicity: Republican lawmakers passed bills that could have withheld state funding from agencies that require employees to attend anti-racism or anti-sexism training, and required the University of Wisconsin System to accept a U.S. Constitution course for its ethnic studies requirement. Michels has said he wanted to "stop" critical race theory, a framework for understanding systemic racism, and "reject state funding for it wherever it may appear, be it higher ed or K-12." Opponents of critical race theory have applied the label to a range of school initiatives for diversity, equity and social-emotional learning.Breaking up Milwaukee Public Schools: Republican lawmakers passed a bill that would have dissolved MPS and created smaller districts in its place. Only one Republican, Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, was recorded voting against the proposal; he did not run for reelection. Michels had also said he was open to breaking up MPS and starting "from scratch." 

Evers voters stood behind public schools

Democrats showed strong support for public schools in this election, with about 80% saying it was more important to increase spending on public schools than to reduce property taxes, according to the Marquette Law School Poll released last week. Just 20% of Republicans said the same. 

Asked if they would rather see more state support for public schools or for private schools, 63% of respondents chose public schools, including 90% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans. About 29% chose more support for private schools, including 7% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans.

Luz Tate, who voted Tuesday at Doerfler School near West National Avenue and South 30th Street, said she'd like to see more funding for public schools.

Tate, who herself is in an online college program with Penn State, raised three children and is now raising her sister’s three children who are in Milwaukee Public Schools. She also cares for her grandson, who she said is autistic and in special education.

“Public schools have helped as much as they can, and I just feel like they need more help,” Tate said. “Kids need more programs, more activities to be involved in. Not all schools have the sports, music, chorus, all the things we used to have.”

A first-time voter in Milwaukee, Wenshet Burkman recently became a citizen and voted at Riverside High School with her two kids, who helped feed her ballot into the machine. While she said abortion was the top issue for her, she also wanted to support public education — including resources for more nutritious school meals.

In Greenfield, voter Nancy Peterson said she didn't think public schools needed more money. Her main concerns were crime and inflation, noting the difficulty of affording groceries while on a fixed income in retirement.

“We’ve been pumping big money into schools and they continue to be a concern,” Peterson said. “I don’t think money’s the answer.”

Michels voters criticized curriculum on race and gender

Jacqueline Gile, voting in Menomonee Falls, echoed Michels’ ideological stances, saying there’s “too much about gender being taught and brought almost to a forefront of trying to retrain a child.” 

“I don’t have children in school, but I would have yanked them from the public school system if I did,” Gile said. “I don’t believe that the government should be involved in our children’s education, and I think they’ve crossed the line.”

Kevin Nugent, who owns Milwaukee Steakhouse, two gun shops, a sports bar and three other companies, said he was voting for Republicans to “fix the country.” While his top concerns were about inflation and the economy, he said he also agreed with Michels in opposing critical race theory and education about gender.

“I don't believe in CRT," Nugent said. "I happen to be Caucasian. I’ve never owned a slave. I have Black employees. I have Black friends. What do I need somebody to tell me, what, I’m a racist?”

Critical race theory is a framework for understanding how racism is not just about personal prejudice but is embedded in legal systems that reinforce racial hierarchy.

Nugent also criticized acceptance of transgender and nonbinary students, and derided transgender swimmer Lia Thomas for being nominated as the 2022 NCAA Woman of the Year.

“How do you feel as a woman that a man wins Woman of the Year? Doesn’t that just humiliate you? They want to teach that at school," Nugent said. "There are only two genders. You are female, I believe. I am a male. There are no others. So, when we take the insanity out of this world, everything will be fine.”

Others said they lined up to vote in order to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

Paris Weathers, voting in Menomonee Falls, said she supported Evers and Mandela Barnes, and liked that Barnes' mother was a teacher.

"She advocated for students, and for minority students," said Weathers, adding that she brought along her son to vote so he could "watch history in the making."

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