Opinion: Brace yourselves: Kids face harsh conditions all year

Photo Credit: Vimvertigo/Canva

By Christian Phelps

January 31, 2024

A note from Wisconsin Public Education Network: a statewide, nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy coalition of public education champions. WisconsinNetwork.org.

Welcome to 2024, Wisconsin.

We’ve already experienced freezing cold weather this January—the kind that hurts your face as soon as you step outside. But don’t let the respite in windchill fool you: our state has laid a foundation of harsh, cold conditions for kids for the whole year, and it’s on us to bundle up and help our neighbors through the storm.

What kids need vs. what they got

Last year brought new challenges for public school funding—both predicted and unforeseen—and none of them are acceptable. In giving public school districts a woefully inadequate “increase” of $325 per pupil per year in the new budget (they needed $1,510 per pupil just to catch up to inflation!), the legislature threw a frigid snowball in our face by tossing nearly every single common-sense proposal from public school advocates in the garbage, even though increases to public school funding were the most common priority Wisconsinites raised at every single public budget hearing.

Today, over $7 billion in surplus funds continue to sit around in Madison, going nowhere, helping no one, and utterly failing to reach Wisconsin’s youngest generation. All signs point to the fact that Wisconsin has more than enough money to close the growing budget gaps in our public schools now. Our leaders simply chose not to. Instead, they passed the largest-ever increase in the use of our public funds on private voucher and charter schools, which play by their own set of rules and directly deprive funds from the public schools that serve all. (These unfair privatization schemes are now being challenged in court.)

The most disturbing part of this is its impact on children, and particularly on the very kids already most underserved in Wisconsin. Students with disabilities—whom private and religious schools are not legally obligated to serve, even if they receive public funds—are back in school this winter at public schools receiving only a one-third reimbursement from the state for their special education services.

Our public school educators are amazing, and they work hard to meet the moral and legal responsibility of providing the full special education resources to meet every child’s needs. But the state isn’t pulling its weight, leaving local school districts to shift diminishing funds around to cover the remaining two-thirds. By withholding funds and forcing our public schools to make do with less, we’re especially harming students with disabilities, students of color, and students in poverty. Wisconsin continues to boast a worst-in-the-nation disparity for nearly all of these groups. This is a choice.

Four dates to take action this year

Kids’ needs remain even when funding disappears. In the wake of the abysmal new education budget, our two largest school districts are going to referenda for their operating costs in 2024. Milwaukee and Madison join many hundreds of districts—urban, suburban, and rural—doing the same this year. On February 20, April 2, August 13, and November 5, voters in some of Wisconsin’s school districts will have referenda on their ballots. We’ll have to do what we’ve done before: come together locally to support our educators and the students they serve, taking on the responsibility of ensuring that our public schools remain solvent and vibrant.

We are the ones who will make sure our schools remain open and students’ bus rides are short. We will attract and retain the fantastic teachers Wisconsin kids deserve. By supporting public schools at the ballot box—and stubbornly keeping our rhetoric about public schools honest, unifying, and positive—we will protect our kids, our schools, our school boards, and our communities. Visit WisconsinNetwork.org/electionhq to take action now.

Be a leader in 2024, and join us for more change in 2025 and beyond

An adage we often hear from our teacher friends is the simple statement: we can do hard things. Public schools have tightened their belts to support kids through 30 years of spending caps, 16 years of falling behind inflation, and heightening attacks on the freedom to learn, read, and teach. They have done so nimbly and gracefully.

After preparing as well as we can to weather these storms by getting to board meetings and ballot boxes to support students through what promises to be an exceptionally difficult 2024, we’ll face a new opportunity to actually do right by Wisconsin kids in the form of a new, better budget in 2025. Educators, students, and families in public schools step up every day. We can do the same for them. Join Wisconsin Public Education Network to tap into the large and growing community of public school champions standing up for students—providing some much needed warmth amid the iciness of bad policy.


  • Christian Phelps

    Christian Phelps is a born-and-raised Wisconsinite, attended public K-12 school in Eau Claire, and worked in Madison public schools for two years before moving into journalism, media, and advocacy work; Christian is the director of digital organizing and communications at Wisconsin Public Education Network.



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