Assembly Session Education Roundup

Wondering what the Assembly passed regarding education at the end of session? Look no further

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

February 23, 2016

[Madison, Wisc…] In their last week of legislative session, the Assembly and Senate passed dozens of bills. One particular issue – education – deserves extra attention because of the crucial role it plays. In this roundup, we focus on just that – education.

The Assembly’s major education changes affect both K-12 and higher education and can be split into several main categories: the school choice skim fix, special education funding, Gov. Scott Walker’s college affordability package, and school accountability.

School Choice Skim Fix

Late into the night on what was likely their last day of session for the year, the Wisconsin Assembly voted to end school choice skim. After a relatively short debate over the education funding formula, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ (R-Racine) amendment was passed on a 56-37 vote.

Earlier this month, the MacIver Institute broke the story on public school skim after discovering that public school districts across the state had levied for funding higher than many believed was permissible. More than a hundred school districts netted a profit from the program, according to a Jan. 28 Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) memo.

Assembly Amendment 1 was tacked onto Senate Bill 615 (SB 615), which dealt with the special needs scholarship program. Under the amendment, public school districts will be able to levy for the exact amount of funding lost to voucher schools, but no more. In total, 115 public school districts across the state skimmed $3.7 million more than the cost of the school choice program. Some districts, such as Racine United School District, blamed the school choice program for higher local property taxes – even saying that they were required by the state to raise taxes in order to pay for voucher schools.

“For those of you who are not familiar with what’s going on in Racine, first of all, they made decisions over time to actually not utilize the tools of Act 10, which caused many of their financial hardships. They then had the opportunity to increase property taxes because of a glitch in the budget that we voted for, and they took every single opportunity to increase property taxes,” Vos said. “Their increase was almost 11 percent in one year. Without this bill, we’ll see substantial double-digit increases continuing in the future.”

Many public school districts not only raised taxes to fully compensate for the lost aid that went to choice schools, but went far beyond the lost aid amount. In the Legislature, many were confused on how exactly public schools were able to levy for more than the amount of each voucher. School districts could not levy to backfill the aid reduction, according to a nonpartisan LFB memo dated Jan. 16, 2016. Regardless, the Vos amendment would end this practice.

The LFB memo writes:

“School districts cannot levy to backfill the aid reduction. If the district does not receive an equalization aid payment sufficient to cover the aid reduction, the balance is reduced from other state aid received by the district.”

“There is some dispute as to whether [the law] was intended to allow them to raise the revenue limit as though these were publics school students, or were they supposed to raise it just the amount of the scholarships,” Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), Chair of the Assembly Committee on Education, said. “That’s a debate that will be coming, I’m quite certain.”

Democrats tried to prevent the amendment from being adopted, arguing that it was not substantially related to SB 615. They argued that Republicans knew what they were doing when they allowed for school choice expansion, and should have anticipated property tax increases.

“During debate today, Representative Vos called the previous funding choices a ‘glitch’,” Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains) wrote in a press release after the Assembly session. “After this year’s session, we can be certain of this: Republicans’ attack on education is not a glitch. It is a systematic, calculated attack on our public education, our teachers, and worst of all, Wisconsin students.”

Republicans refuted those claims, highlighting the fact that public schools will get back the exact amount of money taken out for vouchers.

“I hate to say this, but I guess math is not your strong suit. We are not cutting schools,” Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) said. “We’re allowing the schools to levy for the exact amount that will be transferred to the voucher. Exact amount. So the schools will have enough dollars coming in and enough dollars going out. No more dollars will be taken out of the school districts than what they would normally have. Because for every child that they are counting in the levy, that exact amount goes back out. They won’t be educating those children. So I think, I think you have to have a more honest answer to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin. Public schools will be held harmless. And you know what? We have the [Legislative Council] memo that shows that.”

Every Democrat and four Republicans voted against the amendment, with several abstentions. The Senate previously passed SB 615 unamended. With this amendment, the bill now goes back to the Senate for approval. Now, let’s take a look at SB 615 itself.

Special Needs Scholarship Program

SB 615 addresses the Special Needs Scholarship Program, which was established in the 2015-17 biennial budget.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program allows children with disabilities who are enrolled in public schools to apply to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to receive annual financial assistance from the state of Wisconsin to attend a participating private school.

SB 615 fixes a drafting error in the budget, according to its author, Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown). If passed, the bill would require a child with disabilities to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or services plan in effect prior to being eligible to participate in the scholarship program. Under current law, students must only have an IEP plan completed prior to participating.

If passed, SB 615 also allows children with disabilities to apply for a scholarship and to attend private school at any time during the school year. Current law restricts the students from switching schools at any time – a problem which, according to advocates, forces students to stay in schools which simply don’t work for them.

SB 615 would also require the parent or guardian of a child with disabilities who is participating in the program to assist in making the child available for their IEP reevaluation once every three years. Finally, if passed, SB 615 would require a participating private school which receives more applications than the number of spaces available to accept applications in the order which they are received. Under current law, private schools must select applicants on a random basis.

SB 615 passed the Senate unamended, but Assembly Amendment 1 – also known as the school choice skim fix – was added in the Assembly. In order for the bill to move to Gov. Walker’s desk, both houses of the Legislature must concur the same text, so SB 615 is heading back to the Senate.

Gov. Scott Walker’s Education Package

Gov. Scott Walker introduced a ‘college affordability’ initiative at his State of the State address in January, and the members of the legislature announced immediate support. Expect to hear more about these initiatives in the coming months now that the bills have had some time to circulate. The Assembly passed the full package of bills on Thursday, Feb. 18, and they now move to the Senate.

  • Removing the cap on student loan interest payments:

Assembly Bill 739 (AB 739) creates an individual income tax exemption. Under current federal law, individuals can only claim up to a $2,500 deduction on qualified education loan interest. If passed, AB 739 would eliminate that cap, allowing individuals to claim the full amount of their student loan interest as deductions on their taxes.

The Department of Revenue estimates that the legislation would cost $500,000 in fiscal year 2016 and $5.2 million annually after fiscal year 2017. AB 739 passed the Assembly on a 61-37 vote, with all Democrats and two Republicans voting against the bill.

  • Additional grants for tech colleges:

Assembly Bill 740 (AB 740) increases the amount of funding in the Wisconsin Grants Program by $1,000,000, spread evenly across the 2015-17 school years. The grant appropriation would go specifically to technical college students. In order to receive a grant, recipients would have to be a Wisconsin resident enrolled at least half-time in a degree or certificate program at a UW technical institution. Eligibility is based primarily on financial needs.

The Wisconsin College Technical System (WCTS) estimated that the additional funding will provide grants to approximately 1,000 students. The WCTS has also announced that demand for WCTS Grants has far outpaced available funds – in the 2014-15 school year, 24,275 grants were awarded but an additional 34,725 qualified applicants were waitlisted because of a lack of sufficient funding.

AB 740 passed the Assembly 61-36 on a mostly party-line vote.

  • Creating a new grant program for students with emergency financial needs:

Assembly Bill 741 (AB 741) appropriates $130,000 to create a new grant program that would award emergency financial grants to students in technical colleges and the two-year University of Wisconsin colleges.

Students would be eligible for the grants if their expected family financial contribution is less than $5,000. A student who is in an immediate financial emergency – which would cause him or her to not complete that school term if the unanticipated expense is not covered – may receive up to $500 in grant funding per academic year. The bill establishes a two grant limit per student per academic year.

Colleges who receive the grants must also annually report how the grants were used, and what kind of outcomes students faced after receiving the grants. The WTCS is then charged with regularly reporting that information to the Legislature in order to more effectively track the program’s outcomes.

The goal of the legislation is to help students who face unanticipated financial emergencies which could force them to leave school. The WCTS estimates that the long-term implications of the bill would improve student outcomes.

The Assembly passed AB 741 on a 61-36 vote.

  • DWD student internship coordination:

Assembly Bill 742 (AB 742) charges the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) with providing coordination between educational institutions and employers in order to increase the number of students who are placed in internships.

The DWD would administer this support via the Fast Forward Program, a workforce training program. The goal of the legislation is to increase the number of students who have internships, hopefully also increasing the number of students who have jobs upon graduation.

As originally drafted, AB 742 would have appropriated $200,000 in new General Purpose Revenue (GPR) funding in order to add two full-time positions in DWD for this program. However, an amendment introduced by the author of the bill transfers the funding from already-existing DWD appropriation. As a result, no new funds are appropriated for the internship program.

AB 743 passed the Assembly 60-37.

  • Internship coordination in the UW System:

Assembly Bill 743 (AB 743) also deals with college internships, working under the assumption that the more students who have internships during school, the more students will have jobs upon graduation. AB 743 requires the UW System’s Board of Regents to provide assistance to students in their two- and four-year institutions to secure internships. If passed, AB 743 would create full-time positions at UW institutions in order to help these efforts.

AB 743 appropriates $500,000 in GPR to fund these new internship coordinator positions. Using an average salary of $37,000 and an average cost of benefits of $14,811, the UW system estimate that they could hire nine positions as a result of this bill.

AB 743 passed the Assembly 57-40.

  • Providing financial literacy information to students:

Assembly Bill 744 (AB 744) would require all institutions of higher education to provide students with financial literacy information on an annual basis. That information would have to include:

  1. information about each of the student’s student loans, including total loan debt accrued, loan interest rate, estimated future monthly payments, and total projected loan costs
  2. estimated total cost of attendance at the educational institution for the academic year, including tuition, fees, room and board
  3. total sum of state, federal, and institutional grants that the student receives.

The financial literacy letters would be provided to students at the beginning of each academic year. The hope behind this legislation is that students will stay more up-to-date on the status of their loans, especially accruing interest.

AB 744 passed the Assembly 61-36.

It’s worth noting that Assembly Democrats voted against all of these bills, arguing that they don’t do enough to help students in need. On almost all of these bills, Democrats offered up their ‘Higher Ed Lower Debt’ package as an amendment. The Higher Ed Lower Debt plan would create a new state agency to refinance students loans through bonds. That plan would save a typical student loan payer $172, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Republicans criticized Democrats for going ‘all or nothing’ on education – saying that small fixes addressing the root of the problem – financial illiteracy, not having strong enough working resumes to secure jobs after college – are favorable to tinkering with loans that students have already accrued.

“Our philosophy is to have students have less debt,” Rep. David Murphy (R-Greenville) said, in a statement summarizing the Republican Assembly caucus’s arguments throughout the debate.

School Accountability and Reporting

Assembly Bill 722 (AB 722) addresses school accountability, making it easier for parents to access DPI accountability reports. If passed, AB 722 would require all schools that maintain a website and for which the DPI has published an accountability report to prominently display a link to that report on the school’s website. Schools would have to publish the accountability report within 30 days of the publishing of that report. AB 722 would affect all public schools, private schools participating in a parental choice program, and independent charter schools.

The bill would make objective school data available to parents, according to author Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee).

AB 722 passed out of the Assembly on a voice vote and now goes to the Senate.