Catholic Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Council for Religious and Independent Schools’ visits to legislative leaders have begun. They are all talking about the governor’s newly introduced budget. It calls for several initiatives for Wisconsin’s public schools, among many other things.

Gov. Tony Evers said his state budget would invest a historical $2.6 billion in K-12 education to address the student literacy crisis, the educator shortage, mental health resources, special education programs and more.

The roughly $80 billion state budget funds state government for two years. It has to be passed by June 30, or the state will begin its new fiscal year July 1 with funding levels approved in the previous session’s budget. There is general agreement across the aisles that inflation has been so high that the numbers do need some adjusting for that.

But the Republican-led legislature has vowed to ignore the governor’s budget and generate its own. Legislators are instead calling his proposed budget a “list of ideas” to consider. That’s unique. Even if they drastically change it, the Legislature typically works off the governor’s budget. They did even when the tables were turned with Republican governors in office with Democratic-controlled legislatures.

On top of that, for the first time in history, the state has a record $7.1 billion surplus. More than half of that comes from one-time funding. Everybody is chomping at the bit in hopes to aim it toward their pet project. But the budget hawks are asking how those plans will be funded after the one-time money is gone.

Others are cautioning frugality because a recession may be coming when we will wish we still had the surplus. Others jokingly counter the last three recessions have been predicted. Meaning, if you say something often enough, it will eventually come true. After all, they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

It will go like this until mid-April. Gov. Evers has hit the road with his cabinet secretaries to tour the state with the Democrats’ message. He even got President Biden to visit Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Republicans are touting their priorities.

Both sides are using the budget debate to ignite voter turnout for the nonpartisan April 4 state Supreme Court race, where the winner gets a 10-year term and determines which side controls the court.

Amid all the fighting and mixed messages, WCRIS is proposing a nonpartisan plan to legislators that the governor actually might be willing to sign. Our proposal calls for an equitable approach to funding special initiatives for education.

We are arguing that since private schools constitute 10 percent of Wisconsin’s K-12 school population, we should get 10 percent of education-related funding to use for school health and safety grants. This innovative proposal is based on all that WCRIS schools have learned from receiving access to recent federal pandemic aid and the 2017 state safety grants.

Both public and private schools have had trouble accessing the federal pandemic relief money. Congress hastily wrote a law that makes it difficult for schools to get the things they actually need to help children now. Both used the state safety grants well in 2017-19 for security improvements such as solid core doors, classroom locks, main door intercoms and cameras.

Like the public schools, private K-12 schools need grants to address learning loss, access to clean air and water, broadband connectivity and mental health treatment.

We are requesting state money so our schools are free from the federal regulations and bureaucracy tied to federal dollars.

While WCRIS works on that, tax season is here, and we are educating private school parents about a simple form that helps families deduct up to $4,000 for grade K-8 tuition and $10,000 for grade 9-12 tuition on their state income taxes.

This state tax deduction has been available since 2014, thanks to WCRIS’ advocacy and our schools’ and families’ support. The deduction saves private school families nearly $8 million per year.

We ask principals to send the Wisconsin Department of Revenue Schedule PS form home with students and give parents a head start by filling in the school’s information. It is very simple, but the rest is up to the parents. Please encourage families you know at Catholic schools to use this hard-won deduction.

We may call on you to help contact legislators to seek support for private school health and safety grants in April. Until then, do your homework so you can be an informed voter on election day.