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Report: State K-12 spending falls below U.S. average

EAU CLAIRE — After lagging the rest of the country in education spending growth for much of the past two decades, the amount Wisconsin spends per student has dropped below the national average.

That was one of the key revelations in a report released this week by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum that also raised questions about how this new standing might affect the possibility of budget cuts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2002, Wisconsin ranked 12th among the 50 states with $8,574 in per-pupil spending, which was about 11% above the national average. But the state dropped to 24th in spending per student in 2018 at $12,285, or about 3% below the U.S. average of $12,612, according to the report based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

Among Wisconsin’s four neighboring states, the report said, only Iowa spent less per student in 2018 — the last year for which the census data is available.

The insufficient funding can’t help but affect the quality of service provided by Wisconsin schools, especially considering rising expectations regarding personalized instruction, integration of technology into curriculum and the focus on the social and emotional needs of students, Menomonie schools Superintendent Joe Zydowsky said.

“When you couple inadequate funding with a large increase in expectations, it really is putting Wisconsin schools in a difficult situation,” Zydowsky said. “In Menomonie, we’re very proud of our approach to whole child education, but I dream about how much more could be done if more funding were provided for schools.”

Though Wisconsin education spending rose by 15% between 2008 and 2018, per-pupil spending grew by 23% nationwide over that decade. Wisconsin’s increase over that period ranked 38th among the states, the report indicated.

The state’s K-12 spending plunged 6.2% in 2012 after former GOP Gov. Scott Walker and legislators cut state school aids by about $400 million in response to a budget shortfall. That brought state spending much closer to the U.S. average before it dipped below the national level in 2015, according to the study.

“Wisconsin’s falling standing in per-pupil spending relative to the nation is even more consequential given that its school enrollment was declining while that of the country as a whole was rising during this period,” the report said.

After adjusting for inflation, per-pupil spending across the U.S. rose by 5.4% between 2008 and 2018, while Wisconsin’s adjusted spending levels decreased by 1.4%.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum used public K-12 per-pupil spending data on operations such as instruction, administration, transportation, building maintenance, curriculum development and staff training. Debt payments and capital spending were not included.

The authors also noted that more than half of Wisconsin’s school districts passed a total of 580 referendums to exceed revenue limits between 2008 and 2018.

Changes in staff benefits drove much of the difference between Wisconsin’s spending levels and national averages. In 2002, Wisconsin led the nation by spending just over $2,000 per pupil on school employee benefits and remained well above average through 2012. A 15% drop that year reflected the impact of Act 10, the 2011 law that eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees and lowered district spending through additional contributions by teachers and school staff toward their pension and health insurance benefits.

Wisconsin’s spending on staff benefits had dropped below the national average to 28th by 2018, said the report, which also showed that spending on school employee salaries has remained below national averages since before 2008 and ranked 27th in 2018.

Such trends make it increasingly difficult for school districts to recruit and retain the best educators possible, Zydowsky said.

Partisan divide

Not surprisingly, legislators and candidates from the two major political parties offered starkly different reactions to the report, with Republicans emphasizing raw dollar increases in school spending in recent years and Democrats pointing to the state’s decline in standing relative to other states.

Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Washington, noted that K-12 education remains the largest spending category in the state budget.

“The recent budget that I supported, and the governor signed, provided another historic investment in our local schools,” Petryk said in a statement. “This budget, which legislative Democrats voted against, provided an additional $22 million to schools in my district. This number doesn’t include the nearly $100 million in additional spending on special education.”

Petryk added that the Act 10 reforms he supported have saved taxpayers nearly $5 billion in pension and health care expenses by shifting that burden to school staff.

Likewise, Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, said he has voted to invest more than $1 billion in additional K-12 funding since being elected to represent the 67th Assembly District in 2016.

But Charlene “Charlie” Warner, the Mondovi Democrat challenging Petryk in the 93rd District, was unimpressed.

“In 10 years of primarily Republican Party rule we have managed to drop from educational leaders in our country to the bottom tier,” Warner said. “I’m tired of the self-congratulating comments of local Republicans who have the audacity to brag about the increase of school funding in the last budget — even as they cut Gov. (Tony) Evers’ school funding budget substantially.”

Chris Kapsner, the Boyceville Democrat challenging Summerfield in the Nov. 3 election, said Republicans have turned their back on public education, which he called “the engine that helps bring opportunity to our communities, especially in rural areas where the schools are the foundation of our towns.”

“We really need to reinvest in our schools,” Kapsner said. “It’s so important to our future and to the future of our children.”

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, pointed to GOP backing of state support for private voucher schools as one source of the school funding problem.

“At a time when we need to be investing in public education to keep our kids and staff safe from a global pandemic, we are seeing more and more money going towards the voucher programs. We cannot keep funding two separate systems for education,” Emerson said. “If we don’t start taking education funding seriously, we will be starving out the public school system and it will die.”

Charlie Walker, the Eau Claire Republican challenging Emerson in the 93rd Assembly District, didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Pandemic impact

With attention to school financing especially high considering the negative impact on state tax revenues of the pandemic, policymakers will be forced to make difficult trade-offs and public school leaders are bracing for the possibility of substantial state aid cuts, the report’s authors concluded.

“Because K-12 education is the single largest category of general purpose revenue spending in the budget, it may be difficult for state leaders to avoid contemplating cuts in this area,” the report said. “However, as they do so, they should consider Wisconsin’s spending trends relative to the nation over the last decade.”

While schools have received some funding for safety measures through coronavirus relief packages, Zydowsky said that money pays for only a fraction of the additional spending required for personal protective equipment, additional staffing to allow for reduced class sizes and extra cleaning and sanitization.

“In the end, we’re going to have huge expenses without corresponding revenue, and that will mean we will not be able to spend those resources on other services for students.”

The river we swim

A few weeks ago, my son Henry and I embarked on a father-son adventure. Little planning or preparation was involved. I described our general travel philosophy as “footloose and fancy free,” though it may as well have been categorized as “disorganized parenting.” Nonetheless, campgrounds were secured, the 4Runner packed, and we set out to explore Michigan’s U.P., from the Porcupine Mountains all the way up to Copper Harbor. I was excited to show my son some of the same landscapes that have informed who I am, and how I interact with, and value the natural world.

On a beautiful afternoon, we joined many other tourists on a circuit of trails beside a series of waterfalls. After walking a path to Lake Superior, Henry suggested we crawl down a steep embankment to the river and go swimming. And so, I followed him onto a slippery rock shelf where we changed into bathing suits and edged into the river.

The water was not Lake Superior frigid, but warm, and flowing around us swiftly, but not dangerously. We launched ourselves into the current and began muscling upriver, and I should add that if, dear reader, you feel any sort of anxiety for us, or for Henry, know that he is an elite competitive swimmer; me: not so much.

That was when we saw the amphibious snake weave its way off a nearby shoreline and into the current directly ahead of us. It was not a big snake, but it was a snake, in water, moving much more confidently than me. I began to have second thoughts about our little maneuver, but eventually the snake moved far enough away that we could push on, towards an outcropping and pull ourselves out of the river.

There we crept along shore before finally diving into a deep pool and allowing the water to move us back towards our shoes and clothing. Henry was delighted, and to my great surprise, so was I. There we were, father and son, floating down a northern river, our feet surfing an underwater column of rock, as the current carried us out toward the big lake.

I’ve been carrying that memory around with me for weeks. And like the best memories, it wasn’t earned easily; had we remained on the well-trod path, we would not have been immersed in the river’s flow. It was a parenting moment, a decision, where certainly the most prudent thing to do, the cautious thing to do, would have been to say, “This isn’t safe.” Or, “Henry, there’s about a hundred signs warning us not to do this.” And yet, I knew my son. I knew what he was capable of. I knew that he is an accomplished swimmer. So we dove in.

Feels like we’re diving in again, this autumn. Diving back into life, into school, into “normalcy.” Knowing what to do right now, as a parent, is impossible. The older folks in my life just tell me that they’re glad they’re not in my shoes, glad they never had to supervise any distant-learning. Glad they didn’t need to parent through a global pandemic. And those people in my life who were identified as members of the Greatest Generation, who lived through World War II and Korea and polio and the Cold War … well, most of those people are gone from my life now, passed on.

There is no parenting guide for what we’re all facing this fall. I suppose not sending our children back to school would be the safest decision, but I also believe that their teachers are better equipped to educate them than I am, at least on most days. I’m also confident that as their parent, as an adult with a job to do, sending our kids back to school is the healthiest thing for me. I want to at least try to make things work, even if I know there’s a component of risk. The past seven months or so have been some of the most challenging times in my life as my every routine was busted into smithereens. I’ve often felt like there has been a malevolent vibration, an anxious frequency in my every waking hour. Uncharacteristically, I’ve often felt very sad, without any clear reason. I want these sensations to stop, even as I know that in all likelihood, in-person schooling is probably a short-lived experiment, a vaccine is farther off than we’d all like, and that this virus has shown us all, like an X-ray, exactly where we are broken, as individuals, and as a society.

My favorite writer, the great Jim Harrison, was a big aficionado of river swimming. He once wrote, “You can’t row or swim upstream on the river. This moving water is your continuing past that you can’t retrace by the same path that you reached the present, the moment by moment implacable difference of time.”

It is a tenuous time to be alive; it’s probably been 20 years since I’ve felt so unsteady, simply walking through my life. But rivers and water have been a steadying metaphor for me since I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” Look, you don’t go swimming when the river is too high or too fast, or when you’ve had too much to drink. You don’t underestimate the river. And a life preserver is almost always advised. But you also shouldn’t fear the river, because there is enlightenment in being held by its current, in seeing the sheer joy on your boy’s face, as he experiences the new and unexpected.

Parenting, I think, is all standing on the riverbank, understanding nuances and dangers, and guiding a young swimmer into unknowable waters. Parenting, I think, is being aware that time is a river rapidly flowing toward an unknown waterfall. To all the parents, educators, and health care providers out there, I wish you good health and good judgment this fall.

Biden, in Kenosha, says U.S. confronting 'original sin'

KENOSHA (AP) — Joe Biden told residents of Kenosha that recent turmoil following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, could help Americans confront centuries of systemic racism, drawing a sharp contrast with President Donald Trump amid a reckoning that has galvanized the nation.

“We’re finally now getting to the point where we’re going to be addressing the original sin of this country, 400 years old … slavery and all the vestiges of it,” Biden said at Grace Lutheran Church, where he met with community leaders after a private session with Blake and his family.

The visit marked the former vice president’s first trip to the battleground state of Wisconsin as the Democratic presidential nominee and was a vivid illustration of the contrast he offers to Trump.

While Biden spent more than an hour with the Blake family, Trump didn’t mention Blake during his own trip to Kenosha on Tuesday. Where Biden traced problems in the criminal justice system back to slavery, Trump refused to acknowledge systemic racism and offered his unvarnished support to law enforcement, blaming the recent violence on “domestic terror.”

“I can’t say if tomorrow God made me president, I can’t guarantee you everything gets solved in four years,” Biden said. But “it would be a whole better, we’d get a whole lot further down the road” if Trump isn’t re-elected.

“There’s certain things worth losing over,” he concluded, “and this is something worth losing over if you have to — but we’re not going to lose.”

Blake remains hospitalized after being shot in the back seven times by a white Kenosha police officer while authorities were trying to arrest him on Aug. 23. The shooting is the latest police confrontation with a Black man to spark protests. It follows demonstrations that swelled nationwide after George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis officer in May.

Outside Grace Lutheran, Blake’s uncle, Justin Blake, compared Trump’s and Biden’s respective visits as he marched and chanted with a crowd. “Trump didn’t ask about my nephew. Trump didn’t mention my nephew’s name while he was here,” Justin Blake said.

Justin Blake called Biden “more of a unifier” and credited the Democrat for bringing up criminal justice changes before being asked. But Justin Blake said “we’re holding everybody’s feet to the fire. Nobody gets a free pass.”

Biden heard similar sentiments inside the church, where residents offered searing accounts of their struggles.

Porsche Bennett, an organizer for Black Lives Activists Kenosha, told Biden she’s “tired” at just 31 years old and worried for her three young, Black children. “For so many decades we’ve been shown we don’t matter,” she said, adding that she’s heard promises from plenty of politicians, but not “action.”

Biden answered that, because he’s white, “I can’t understand what it’s like to walk out the door or send my son out the door or my daughter and worry about, just because they’re Black, they might not come back.”

But he compared the current era of cellphone videos of violent police actions to television footage showing civil rights protesters being beaten more than a half-century ago. He called both circumstances a politically crucial awakening for white Americans. Biden also stressed the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout on non-whites.

“I think the country is much more primed to take responsibility, because they now have seen what you see,” Biden told Bennett, the community organizer.

Barb DeBerge, owner of DeBerge Framing & Gallery, told Biden of the deep pain exposed by the protests and how it has reached many business owners whose establishments have been burned. DeBerge noted her shop still stands, but said, “I just I don’t think I really grieved as much as I should because being a business owner, I have to keep going, I have to keep working.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said that he’d asked both Biden and Trump not to come. “I would prefer that no one be here, be it candidate Trump or candidate Biden,” Evers said in a news conference.

Yet Kenosha was mostly calm for Biden’s visit, other than some verbal jousting outside the church between activists, including Bennett, and at least one Trump supporter.

Michelle Stauder, a 60-year-old retired Kenosha school teacher said Biden is “here spreading the word of peace and rebuilding.”

Kenneth Turner stood nearby with a Trump-Pence yard sign. “Everyone is blaming Trump for everything,” the 50-year-old Kenosha man said. “But problems here have been around a long time before Trump.”

Biden criticized Trump for his sweeping condemnations of protesters, his absolute defense of law enforcement and denials that Americans with black and brown skin face barriers that whites do not — statements aimed by the president at his overwhelmingly white political base.

During his Kenosha trip Tuesday, Trump toured damaged buildings and discussed ways to quell unrest with law enforcement officials. Trump was greeted by supporters who occasionally mixed with and yelled at Black Lives Matter organizers.

The president amplified his approach Thursday evening in Pennsylvania, another state that could decide the election. “Biden went (to Kenosha) today. There was nobody there. There was nobody there,” Trump said. At about the same time, Biden was greeted after an evening event by hundreds of supporters who chanted, “Let’s go Joe!”

Trump also repeated his baseless assertion that Biden supports riots. Biden, in fact, has repeatedly condemned violence, most recently on Thursday, and he has criticized Trump for not denouncing a 17-year-old Illinois teen now charged with killing two protesters after he traveled to Kenosha armed and intent, he said, on protecting local businesses.

Biden, who enjoyed police union backing for much of his political career, has defended police officers for bravery and public service. But he said again Thursday that policing must be overhauled. He repeated his promise of a national commission on policing if he’s elected.

Biden does not want to “defund the police,” contrary to Trump’s claims. But he proposes that local forces agree to certain best practices as a condition of federal grants. He also wants to spend more on other public agencies, such as mental health services, to ease social problems police must handle by default.

Most police officers are “decent people,” Biden said in Kenosha, but he added that “every organization” has “bad people.” That, he said, gives the country “a chance to change things, and we can.”

As he boarded his plane for a return trip to his Delaware home, Biden said he didn’t know if his trip to Kenosha was more successful than Trump’s.

“But I felt good about it,” he said. “I think we brought people together and I felt good about it.”