At a listening session held on Feb. 16 at Sevastopol School, freshman Representative Joel Kitchens fielded education questions that mostly focused on the budget and vouchers.
Kitchens kicked things off by saying his views have not changed in the time since he took office in January, “but I am a whole lot wiser about the politics of it and I think I have a much better perspective now on what’s possible and what’s not possible.”
He mentioned that he was appointed by House Speaker Robin Vos as vice chair of the Education Committee because of his 15 years experience on the Sturgeon Bay School Board, and with the knowledge that he did not toe the party line on all education issues.
“I am in a position to make a difference down there, and I am making a difference,” Kitchens said. “It may not make the headlines because a lot of what goes on behind the scenes as far as shaping the legislation, I am very much being heard.”
Knowing that Gov. Scott Walker’s education budget would be much of the focus of the night, Kitchens opened it up to questions by saying, “I keep saying over and over, that is a starting point. That will change a great deal. There will be hundreds of changes to that.”
The first question came from Sevastopol School Board President Sue Todey, who asked if there is a timeline for approving the 2015-17 budget.
Kitchens said there surely will be no budget vote before all taxes are paid by the April 15 deadline.
“Really, May is the earliest we’ll have a vote on this,” he said, adding that those receipts will surely change the budget. “We fully expect more money to come in than has been projected. There are a lot of reasons for that.”
If tax receipts are higher than expected, Kitchens said he is pushing to use the extra for K-12 education.
“And I think there’s a little bit of support for that, so I think that will be a priority,” he said.
A member of the audience then asked if he meant the extra income would be used for K-12 public education “as opposed to all these other things that are draining money from K-12 public education?”
“You know,” Kitchens said, “I’m not a big fan of vouchers. Our Assembly district, we get no direct benefit out of it. It’s a drain on our area.”
He also referred to Walker’s plan to “open up” the voucher system. “That sounds a little scarier than it really is,” he said.
Kitchens said changes are coming for the voucher program that will bring the amount per student down to $5,000-some dollars, which Education Committee Chair Jeremy Thiesfeldt, a voucher supporter, told Kitchens would kill the voucher program because it falls below actual tuition costs for most private schools.
Several people brought up the inherent unfairness of the voucher program, especially, as someone pointed out, that 75 percent of the students using the voucher program had never been to a public school. Another participant called the voucher program a business experiment that is paid for through public taxes. Another man asked about the separation of church and state in the voucher program, when so many of the private schools are parochial. Southern Door School District member Mike Toneys said it’s a case of “money laundering,” with the money supposedly going to the parents, who then turn it over to the private school. Someone else pointed out that $30,000 of public education money from Door County went into the voucher program last year.
Kitchens was also asked if he can ever envision a time when school districts don’t have to survive by referenda because principals and administrative staff are spending so much time the time doing politics of referenda instead of educating children.
“I would like to think at some point the formula would be revamped,” Kitchens said, and recounted tearing into then Rep. Garey Bies on the same issue and was told that the public likes having the chance to vote on school spending.
“That is the reality, unfortunately,” Kitchens said. “Once you give them that power, it’s really hard to take it away. I’m sure the public would like to vote on our budget, too, but we’re not going to let them do that. I don’t think it should be that way, but it is. I would love to see us redo the formula, but I don’t see it happening soon.”
Southern Door School district Superintendent Patti Vickman asked Kitchens if he would help spread the word among his fellow legislators to stop demonizing public educators.
“It’s a shame the rhetoric is like that,” Kitchens said, adding that there are many more Republicans like him who respect the work of public school educators.
Kitchens said he welcomes ideas and said he can be reached via his Assembly website, http://legis.wisconsin.gov/assembly/01/kitchens.