Roundtable discussion highlights concerns in Walker's budget plan

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RICE LAKE, Wis. (WEAU) – Democratic lawmakers are calling Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal an “assault on public education.”

This week for the first time, the public had a chance to speak out about the governor’s budget proposal.

Walker says he wants to add nine schools to the state's voucher program which would allow students to attend religious and other private schools on taxpayer dollars. It’s a move that costs $73 million.

But in his plan, he'd also freeze funding for public schools.

And that was a topic of concern at a roundtable discussion Saturday in the Rice Lake Area school district where the public was invited by Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) and Rep. Stephen Smith (D-Shell Lake) to talk about the potential impact of Walker’s budget proposal.

Superintendent Larry Brown has been superintendent for 12 years and of all of those, he had one year where there were no budget cuts.

“It’s hard to find things anymore that doesn't have direct impact on the education of our children,” said Brown.

He said it’s hard enough as it is without the new budget proposal.

“For us, that translates to about $750,000 worth of budget cuts. Obviously we've been working on that for a considerable amount of time at this point and have whittled that down and it has a negative effect on the education of our children. There's no doubt about that,” he said.

Under Walker’s plan, general aid to public school district would increase by $129 million over the next two years, but there’s a catch. The revenue limit would be frozen which means the new money would go toward property tax relief and not the cost of educating students.

Brown said his 4th grade classes would have to increase in class size.

“And making some of our vocational programs smaller through a reduction in force in our family consumer science area and industrial tech area, those kinds of things,” he added.

Meanwhile, area lawmakers said it’s a slap to taxpayers’ faces.

“This is a budget that is an abrasion assault on public education,” said Sen. Jauch. “For a state that prides itself on public education that’s led the nation in standards in educational excellence - it’s appalling that you'd have a governor that would so willingly freeze spending on public education and make efforts to privatize education across our state.”

Rep. Smith said it’s giving priority to voucher schools over public schools.

“The governor’s budget shows he values students who attend private schools $1400 more than he values students that attend public schools,” said Smith.

At the first listening session in Greendale, parents of students who have kids at the Milwaukee voucher schools spoke out saying lawmakers should help fund their children’s education. The argument was the same there, saying not to value some students less than others just because parents chose to give their children a private education.

The school vouchers which are typically opposed by teachers unions and democrats are now being opposed by some republican senators too.

Rep. Tom Larson (R-Colfax) said there’s still a long ways to go until a decision is made.

“I've talked to nine different superintendents in my district and they all seem to be not so much concerned about the environments but they don’t want it to be a part of the budget. I guess I don’t have a problem with that,” said Larson.

Under Walker’s budget proposal, a separate $21 million program would allow special-needs students to receive vouchers to attend private schools. Another $23 million would go to charter schools.

“I think the vouchers they may or may not be a part of the budget. You have to remember this is just the first round of the budget and it's got to go through a lot of steps yet,” said Larson.

Larson said to remember that Governor Walker has worked with State Superintendent Tony Evers on parts of the education portion of the budget and this is clearly not the end of the budget discussion.

Once all of the public hearings are over, the republican-controlled committee will begin the process of voting on changes to walker's plan before the full legislature takes it up in late June.

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