Catholic Wisconsin

If the past is prologue — and it often is when it comes to public policymaking — it’s helpful to review the 2021-23 legislative session for insight into the upcoming 2023-2025 session. The new session begins with the swearing-in of state lawmakers Jan. 3.

The two-year session focuses on a new state budget. The governor will release his proposal Feb. 15. So, while we wait for that, let’s do a little rear-view mirror driving.

In the session that just ended, legislators in the state assembly introduced 1,198 bills and senators introduced 1,107. There were another 100 bills introduced via allowable channels (special sessions, Legislative Council, etc.) for a total of 2,405 bills.

The Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools reviews all of them for our schools. We watch for bills affecting education policy foremost. But we also safeguard existing tax policies, busing and environmental issues, among others, that could affect our schools.

Of the bills introduced over the past two years, just 85 Assembly bills and 181 Senate bills became law. Gov. Evers vetoed a record 126 bills.

Being in power has its benefits. While the Democrats enjoyed control of the veto pen through the governor’s office, the Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature. This resulted, for example, in only 2 percent of Democrats’ bills getting a committee hearing in the assembly.

And the legislating success rate was not evenly distributed. Of the state’s 132 legislators, 74 had no bills become law.

Regardless of party, representatives’ activity varied: In the assembly, one legislator introduced only one bill, while another introduced a high of 25 bills. In the senate, there was a low of one bill and a high of 45 bills being introduced.

Education-related bills attracted attention, likely on account of concerns about students’ academic fallout from the pandemic.

Legislators were told that 2013 was the high-water mark of public school enrollment, which has been on the decline since then, with 829,143 students now. The decline is a combination of decreasing demographics and growing family options.

Those options include four state-funded private school choice programs. Today, there are 373 choice schools enrolling 52,189 children. An even bigger impact is through the public school choice program — commonly known as open enrollment.

Last year, 70,428 students used open enrollment to move to the public school of their choice. Research shows that they move not just for school quality, but also because it’s more convenient for transportation, closer to a parent’s workplace or there’s better access to relatives or friends for before or after school childcare.

Of the top 25 low-income schools performing on the state report card, 17 are choice schools. They receive a $8,400 voucher for each K-8 student in the program and $9,000 for each high schooler in the program for the 2022-23 school year. Meanwhile, on the public side, the state spends an average of $15,329 per pupil.

Some of the most ardent legislative supporters of public schools actually attended — or have their children or grandchildren attend — private schools happily and successfully. They like having a choice themselves but don’t want to subsidize others.

While monitoring innumerable issues, WCRIS learns all sorts of things.

For example, there are an estimated 80 federal anti-poverty programs costing American taxpayers nearly $1 trillion. The feds make the states participate. In Wisconsin, $12 billion is spent on anti-poverty programs, with $3 billion being contributed by the state.

Vouchers are not counted in that number. It’s a $365.2 million program in 2020-21, according to the state fiscal bureau. But there is general agreement that three factors affect poverty — employment, education and family structure.

In the upcoming session, there will undoubtedly be several bills and well-intentioned plans to improve those areas. Our schools impact all three, and WCRIS will make that known to new and veteran legislators.

Statewide, for example, our schools employ more than 10,000 staff. And as enrollment grows, even more jobs will be available. The harvest is plenty, but the laborers are few.

And we’d be remiss to not highlight that Catholic school students have higher graduation and college acceptance rates.

Whether looking forward or back, when it comes to legislators, it has been said: “The politician is most concerned with the next election while the statesman is most concerned with the next generation.”

Over the next two years, we’ll learn which legislators are politicians, and which are statesmen and stateswomen. Let’s pray for them.