Thursday, April 14, 2016

Letter: Teacher loan bill promotes Rep. Quinn--not teachers

Rep. Quinn and Governor Walker are making news up here about his bill for student loan debt relief for teachers who take jobs in rural schools. It got a unanimous 94:0 vote in the Assembly and a 31:1 vote in the Senate.

At first glance it seems to be a great idea. However, it is fair to ask if it is a truly effective measure or something designed at the last minute for the upcoming election. A similar bill proposed by Democrats two years ago was not allowed out of committee. No new dollars were requested to fund the bill. It doesn’t seem to address the real problem: the number of teachers applying for jobs anywhere in Wisconsin has dropped in half over the last few years. And it certainly is no substitute for genuine higher education debt reform, an issue the legislature avoided. It’s all college grads, not just new teachers, with backpacks full of debt.

Rural schools in our area are in trouble, no question about that. Dozens of referendums held statewide this April, asking for a record number of dollars, just to keep the doors open. A truly disturbing teacher shortage as young people choose careers with more security. A statewide expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program that will only accelerate declining enrollment in public schools once it is set loose on rural Wisconsin. Signs of future turmoil for all rural schools on display with the spectacular mess in the Spooner School District.

Rural Wisconsin schools present a unique challenge. On the one hand, people are very loyal to their local public schools and proud of the quality education our kids are getting. On the other hand there are declining enrollments, all across rural Wisconsin. Cutting state funding and pushing school funding more and more onto the property tax, the big change that Republicans brought to school funding, will not sustain quality schools up here for long.

The school funding formula favors urban areas over rural. It pulled a million dollars out of Rep. Quinn’s district this year, a difficult bite compared to the rest of the state. Cuts were moderated only for one district, Chetek-Weyerhaeuser, because of consolidation. That is no surprise, since closing schools and consolidating districts seems to be where Republican leadership would like to take us. What was surprising is that Rep. Quinn told us after the budget was signed how pleased he was with the “big win for Wisconsin schools”.

Serious legislators from rural districts need to put bipartisan effort into proposals that will change the State’s school funding formula in ways that will sustain rural schools. Fair Funding for our Future is the most important of those proposals. That will take a lot of hard work, but well worth it for the benefit of rural public schools.

Gerry Lisi, Chairperson for Barron County Democratic Party

Appeared in Chetek Alert April 13, 2016