Will rural schools play a major role in the 2018 Wisconsin governor’s race?

Wisconsin State Farmer
Bob Panzer

In Wisconsin property taxes are a major portion of the financial support for schools. State funding also plays a major role in many districts, and that funding is based upon a formula that provides greater funding for those districts that are considered property poor. Some recent changes in funding have moved some additional funds to districts based upon each child rather than the property taxes that support each student.

Funding of public schools and funding of private schools via the voucher programs has brought about emotionally fired discussions, letters to editors, and angry callers on talk radio programs in Wisconsin. Many people ignore the facts or use a few twisted facts to argue their point. Even Political Fact Checker has had to label some of the leaders of education as having been less than honest in making their arguments by distorting facts and figures. This type of arguing makes it even more difficult for the average citizen to believe what is being said about Wisconsin’s education programs and schools.

With state schools chief Tony Evers entering the race for Wisconsin governor, I believe education will become a major issue for the 2018 election. With employers expressing a lack in skilled applicants for many job openings, many are questioning what really is being accomplished in the K-12 education system in Wisconsin. Others are questioning the cuts in expenditures over the past few years. Governor Scott Walker has spent the past year traveling the state recognizing schools that have done innovative planning and programming for students. Rural schools such as Stanley and Cornell have been recognized for moving forward with new and exciting changes that their local communities wanted for their students.

What is the future for rural schools in Wisconsin? Are vouchers harming rural schools? Have the past USDA farm bills harmed rural schools? Have the shifts in Ag production helped or harmed rural schools? Have changes in family structure impacted rural schools? Can rural schools make the changes needed to succeed? Will decision makers and stakeholders use emotion, or will they use facts to base their decisions on?

I often hear operational costs in rural schools are increasing at an unsustainable level or that per pupil cost comparisons are unfair when comparing rural schools to suburban or urban schools. Think of the average Wisconsin dairy farm. The more cows per employee or more milk income per cow may be used to measure against other herds. There are many arguments about what to measure schools on, but it really gets down to total dollars available or total dollars we as citizens are willing to pay to support schools. Will Wisconsin actually need to look at major consolidation of school districts? That question can be very emotional for many and can lead to anger and little consideration of facts. This leads to the question, “Will rural schools play a major role in the 2018 Wisconsin Governor’s race?

Can candidates communicate the facts? Will candidates bend the facts and use emotions to drive the election? Will voters understand that revenues will need to increase to allow for the funding they want for schools? How are the other issues in rural Wisconsin impacting the amount of funds that will be available? What about roads and bridges? How are we to conquer the increased use of illegal drugs in our rural communities? Will Wisconsin be able to fund the training that our technical colleges and four year colleges must provide for the workforce our employers are requesting? Many communities are facing major mental health issues in teens, and how will this be addressed?

Rural school districts will need to be active in the 2018 elections and beyond. With 73% of rural school districts in Wisconsin facing declining enrollment according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory, and with some communities experiencing major and rapid declines in those living in these communities, leaders will need to step up and make some bold decisions. Shortages of applicants to fill positions and shortages of funds to operate a school need to be part of the election in 2018 discussions and debates.