Hey, Cheeseheads, Welcome To Your New State—”Wississippi”

No, we’re not Mississippi yet, but Wisconsin folks need to keep their eyes open. Are we willing to let our public education system sink to the bottom so we can save 200 bucks a year on our property taxes?

By Dave Zweifel
The Capital Times (1/8/15)

The state of Mississippi was in the news earlier this month and, as has been the case for years now in that politically red state, it wasn’t good.

The public schools in Mississippi, which have long had a history of being underfunded, are even worse off these days. Indeed, in some school districts teachers are spending their evenings surfing the Internet for math and other problems to give their students because their schools don’t have any up-to-date textbooks.

In Durant, Miss., a relatively small community about an hour north of the state capital, Jackson, there are no advanced placement classes, no marching band, and no new reading books to help raise the school district’s dismal academic rating. The number of teachers has been reduced and several of them, including school administrators, have taken pay cuts. To top it off, the roofs are leaking and the windows need replacing.

How has all this happened, especially in a state whose governor from 2004 to 2012 was one of the most prominent Republican operatives in the nation? Haley Barbour was not only one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite advisers, but ran the GOP national committee from 1993 to 1997 and was chairman of the Republican Governors Association until just two years ago. He had all kinds of good advice on how government should be run.

Making kids pay for tax cuts for the wealthy

But during Barbour’s tenure, the state cut school funding by $1.5 billion. The money was used, it should be noted, to finance large tax breaks for businesses and to fill the state’s “rainy day” coffers. Forcing teachers to download math problems from the Internet apparently doesn’t constitute a “rainy day.”

When the local schools in Mississippi have tried to raise revenue through increases in property taxes, they have run into state laws that cap how much they can raise. And all the while, of course, state government has seen a need to divert some of the scarce education dollars to private “voucher” schools, putting yet a bigger burden on the districts.

If you’re thinking about how this sounds a lot like some other place you know, you’re right.

Wisconsin isn’t Mississippi — yet. But there’s little question we’re eerily starting down the same path that Mississippi state government has trod these past several years.

So far Wisconsin, following the agenda of Gov. Scott Walker, has drastically cut state aid to public schools and used the savings to finance tax incentives for businesses and to deliver income and property tax cuts — even if the state budget isn’t balanced.

Hitting our rural schools

The education cuts, coupled with property tax levy limits, have been particularly hard on rural Wisconsin districts, which for the past two years have been crying out for help to keep their schools viable as they cut teachers and worry over which activities they can continue to afford.

Early in 2014 a Rural Schools Task Force of legislators found that many small school districts in the state are on the verge of closing schools and cutting programs if they don’t get more help from the state.

Meanwhile, Walker and Republicans in the Legislature are preparing to further expand the statewide private school voucher program, siphoning tens of millions more from public schools. Vouchers could devastate those rural public schools. Pointing to initiatives like that, former state Rep. Fred Clark of Baraboo said it is imperative that “we’re not making it worse” for public schools — but that’s what this Legislature will undoubtedly do.

No, we’re not Mississippi yet, but Wisconsin folks need to keep their eyes open. Are we willing to let our public education system sink to the bottom so we can save 200 bucks a year on our property taxes?

That’s a question Wisconsin citizens must ask of our own Haley Barbours.

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