Budget panel approves $639 million more for schools

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) State spending on K-12 schools would increase by $639 million over the next two years, low-spending districts would get a boost and wealthier families could qualify for taxpayer-funded private school vouchers under a plan approved Monday by the Republican-controlled budget committee.

The heart of Gov. Scott Walker's education funding proposal adopted by the Joint Finance Committee with no Democratic support would raise per-pupil aid by $200 this year and $204 next year for all schools, at a cost of about $505 million. The plan was adopted as the committee nears completion of the seven-week-late budget.

Walker has touted the school aid increase as he tries to lift his approval rating over 50 percent before an expected run for a third term next year. Democrats have long hammered Walker for cutting public school funding while expanding the private school voucher program and effectively ending collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers.

Democrats argued the latest proposal didn't do enough to help public schools while spending millions more for private schools in the choice program.

"You can try and paint it as something negative, but at the end of the day, teachers, administrators and students around the state are going to know this is a solid proposal," committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren said.

Walker had originally tied the additional per-student funding to schools showing that teachers are paying at least 12 percent of their health care costs, consistent with the Act 10 collective bargaining law passed in 2011. The committee voted only to have schools report on health care costs but not tie compliance to receiving state aid.

Walker didn't propose loosening income limits in the voucher program, which allows qualifying families to pay for a private-school education for their children using a taxpayer subsidy.

Outside of Racine and Milwaukee, the most a family can earn and still qualify is 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or nearly $45,000 for a family of four. That would increase to $53,460, or 220 percent of poverty level, under the plan approved by the committee.

The program cost about $244 million last school year for vouchers for nearly 34,000 students. About 3,000 students received vouchers to attend private schools outside of Milwaukee and Racine.

The budget committee also voted to increase the maximum that low-spending, mostly rural, districts can spend from a combination of local property taxes and state aid per student from $9,100 to $9,300 this year and $9,400 the next. It would then increase $100 a year before capping at $9,800.

The increased spending would be paid for with a mixture of state aid and higher local property taxes.

The Joint Finance Committee voted on education issues as part of a push to finish the state budget, which was due July 1, by mid-September. Committee co-chairs said they hoped to complete their work next week, but no deal had been reached yet on the biggest sticking point transportation funding. Once the $76 billion budget passes the committee, it heads to the Assembly and Senate for passage.

The committee also voted to:

entice schools to consolidate by providing additional state aid of $150 per student in the newly created district for five years. The payment would gradually be reduced after that.

limit schools to holding votes on exceeding property tax levy limits to regularly scheduled election days, no more than twice a year. A special election could be held if a district experiences a natural disaster, including a fire.

make grant money equal to $125 for every ninth-grade student available to purchase a laptop or other personal computing device or related equipment.

require a teaching license to be given to anyone with a bachelor's degree who passes an alternative teacher preparation program that meets certain criteria. College or university faculty would also be permitted to teach at a public high school without getting a license or permit from the state. Both changes are designed to address teacher shortages.

increase the score a student must receive on the state-mandated civics test from 60 points to 65 points.

approve $1 billion in funding for state building projects, including $75 million for a new crime lab and regional law enforcement facility in the Milwaukee area. The committee added a number of building projects the governor didn't fund, including about $192 million in seven projects across the University of Wisconsin System, $7 million for a geriatric prison facility and $1 million for unspecified improvements to the basement of the Capitol.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP .

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