Jill Underly’s Banquet

Dan O’Donnell responds to the new State Superintendent’s claim that Wisconsin just isn’t spending enough on its schools.

September 24, 2021

Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

Jill Underly would like you to know that Wisconsin’s schoolchildren are starving. Not literally, of course, because Republicans in the State Legislature earlier this year approved the single largest increase in education spending in Wisconsin history.  But they still need more.

“I’m tired of our schools and our children crying for a banquet and when there is the opportunity to have it, being served empty plates by the Legislature,” the new Wisconsin Superintendent said during her first State of Education address on Thursday.

If $17.9 billion is an empty plate, one shudders to think what Underly believes a full banquet might cost.

Over the summer, the Republican Joint Finance Committee took $2.6 billion from federal COVID relief aid to increase total K-12 education spending by an unprecedented 17 percent in the 2021-2023 biennial budget.

Although total spending nearly hit $18 billion and was by far the most in state history, Underly still thought the Legislature could and should do more.  She doesn’t just want a banquet, it seems; she is demanding the state buy her about 36,000 banquet halls.

To qualify for the federal COVID money, legislators boosted direct state aid to $400 million over the next two years, which amounts to approximately $2,100 per student.  This is not just a record increase; it is borderline insanity for a state in which enrollment has declined by nearly four percent in the past year.

Still, this wasn’t enough to keep Wisconsin’s kids from falling off a cliff.

“When presented with an unprecedented windfall that could have meant game-changing, long-term, sustainable improvements to public education, the Legislature’s short-sightedness instead put our schools on a path to a fiscal cliff,” Underly said.

At this point, one might be tempted to ask how much money exactly Underly thinks the state’s schools need.  If record state funding on top of unprecedented federal dollars isn’t enough for her, then what total, specifically, would be?

And, more pressingly, how bad are Wisconsin’s public schools that they need $20 billion or more to improve?

“Throwing even more money at the problem will not fix it,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said after Underly’s speech. “Evaluating curriculum, academic testing, and allowing parents to be a part of the conversation are real solutions Legislative Republicans will continue to fight for in the classroom.”

That’s all well and good, but Underly can’t fund a banquet with testing and parental oversight.

A far better metaphor for her outlandish funding demands might be a trough, since it amounts to little more than swinish greed.  Wisconsin’s schools are more than fully funded, and yet she cries poverty when per-pupil spending has hit record rates even as per-pupil attendance precipitously declines.

Wisconsin’s schoolchildren aren’t starving for state funds; Jill Underly is starving for the attention that comes with recycling the well-worn talking point that, doggone it, our kids just deserve more.

The truth is that the state’s schools are fully funded and, in fact, have record amounts of money in their coffers even though they are educating fewer students than ever before.

Underly just wants her banquet to be more extravagant.