More funds needed to keep ag education strong

posted July 5, 2017 10:50 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jim Massey, Editor |

For months, news outlets such as The Country Today have been receiving news releases from Gov. Scott Walker’s office that highlight the “historic investments” the governor proposed to fund K-12 education in Wisconsin during the next biennium.

The governor visited dozens of schools around the state to tout the budget plan that he said invests “more than $11.5 billion ... in public education without raising property taxes on hard-working Wisconsin taxpayers.”

That might be all well and good, but what the governor doesn’t tell you is how cuts to education funding over his first three budgets crippled many rural school districts and chased many good teachers into jobs outside of the classroom.

That was never more evident than during a recent afternoon of visiting with a dozen state FFA officer candidates as part of the officer selection process. I was a member of a three-member panel that interviewed about one-third of the candidates about their high school achievements and some of the goals they have for future years.

The students told stories of how much they enjoyed their years in agriculture classes and FFA chapters, but many also lamented how they saw a revolving door of teachers/​FFA advisers during their years as a middle school or high school student.

One officer candidate said she had nine different FFA advisers during her seven years as a junior high and high school student. Nine! How much stability could there be in that agricultural education program?

Some said their teachers moved on to jobs in agriculture outside school settings. Others said their advisers left for jobs in other states or larger Wisconsin school districts that paid more. 

In 2012, the governor and the Legislature cut $782 million from public schools, which was largely absorbed by teachers forced to pay higher pension and health insurance premiums. Many teachers who put up with relatively low wages for years — when considering the hours they invest — left public education when their benefits were cut, which to them signaled a lack of support for education. 

In Walker’s 2015-2017 state budget proposal, the governor sought to cut $127 million by eliminating per-pupil categorical aid to schools in the budget’s first year. Republican lawmakers eventually retained the revenue stream for schools after significant pushback from school districts and public school advocates. 

When this column was written, the 2017-2019 state budget hadn’t been passed yet, so it was still unclear whether the governor’s education proposal passed muster with the state Legislature. If approved, the amount of state aid would be the highest ever in dollar spending, but adjusted for inflation, it is still below levels of more than a decade ago when the state maintained a two-thirds commitment to fund public education. 

The funding increase proposed by the governor is certainly needed — especially for many rural schools that have been struggling to keep their heads above water — but it is a bit disingenuous of the governor to brag of the extra dollars he is proposing for education when he was partly responsible for lowering the funding in the first place.

It was encouraging and uplifting to listen to the stories of the state officer candidates who excelled during their middle and high school careers. Of the 12 FFA officer candidates interviewed, there wasn’t one of them who wouldn’t have made a good state officer. Unfortunately, only one officer is elected to serve each of the state’s 10 sections. Hopefully, some of the candidates who won’t be serving in 2017-2018 will run again a year from now.

FFA is the premier youth leadership organization in the country, making a positive difference in the lives of its 650,000 student members who belong to one of 7,859 local FFA chapters throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Without an agriculture educator, an FFA chapter can’t exist. Wisconsin has 255 chapters and about 20,000 members, and keeping all of those agriculture educator positions filled in recent years has been a challenge. At times, there have been more vacancies than there have been licensed teachers, leaving the door open for non-educators to work in the classrooms. That hasn’t set well with some trained educators, either.

If Wisconsin wants to keep a good thing going — namely agriculture education and FFA — schools need the funds to pay teachers salaries that are competitive enough to keep them from flowing out of public education and into the private sector.

Here’s hoping the state Legislature sees the value in returning some of the dollars to public education that have been lost in recent years.

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