Democrats from an Assembly group that was tasked with finding efficiencies in rural schools say Wisconsin's 259 rural districts will continue to struggle if the state expands voucher, private and choice school programs.
They say a final report from the task force's Republican chairman doesn't provide a blueprint to stopping enrollment declines that in turn will continue to create budget woes under the state's funding formula, which ties aid to enrollment and other factors.
"Our point is, we have to make sure we're not making it worse" for public schools, said Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, vice chairman of the Rural Schools Task Force.
The group held six sessions and heard from superintendents from districts across the state who said they risked closing schools and cutting programs without more help from the state.
Rural schools are projected to lose another 23,000 students by 2023, in addition to the 32,000 students lost between 1997 and 2014, according to data from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Community and Environmental Sociology that was cited in Clark's report.
Clark said expanding voucher, choice and other private schools in Wisconsin, paired with the formula that ties state aid and revenue limits to enrollment, will further hurt public school budgets in rural areas.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, put together the bipartisan group last September, calling on lawmakers to find efficiencies and ways rural districts could share resources to cut costs.
He reiterated his support for expanding Wisconsin's voucher program and providing other options for students on Wednesday.
"Let's remember that under current law, every child who's in the public school has an opportunity if space exists to go to another public school," through open enrollment, Vos said Wednesday.
Lawmakers last session expanded the state's voucher program that was previously limited to Milwaukee and Racine. The expansion placed an enrollment cap outside those cities at 500 students this year and 1,000 next year.
Rep. Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander called for more funding for broadband access and other technology. He also recommends forgiving student loans for certain rural teachers, giving more money for transportation and tweaking the funding formula to use a five-year enrollment high as opposed to the current three-year average.
"I truly believe what I put in the report could have serious traction in the next session," Swearingen said. "I believe this is a step in the right direction."
He also asked lawmakers next session to re-evaluate the way the state gives aid and caps revenue. His report found widespread support from the Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and other school leaders. Democrats even heralded most aspects of the report.
Jerry Fiene, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, said the report addresses many of the concerns voiced by superintendents throughout the state, but added that lawmakers need to act on the report next session.
"You can't really fix declining enrollment, but you can create a funding method that can address the impact of declining enrollment," Fiene said.