The Wisconsin Supreme Court has held in both Kukor v. Grover, 148 Wis. 2d 469, 496, 436 N.W.2d 568 (1989) and Vincent v. Voight, 2000 WI 93, ¶3, 236 Wis. 2d 588, 614 N.W.2d 388, that Wisconsin public school students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity for a sound basic education.
In Vincent, the court explained that this fundamental right entails both the opportunity for students to be proficient in mathematics, science, reading and writing, geography, and history, and for them to receive instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social sciences, health, physical education and foreign language, “in accordance with their age and aptitude.” The court held in Vincent that the state’s school finance system will pass constitutional muster only so long as the legislature provides sufficient resources so that school districts across the state can offer students the equal opportunity for a sound basic education that the Wisconsin Constitution requires
The proposed state budget will hold revenue limits constant for the next two years. The only additional funding provided will be a bump in categorical aid in the second year of the biennium. Other than this additional $100 per student categorical aid in 2016-17, school districts throughout the state will be unable to increase the amount of revenue they can raise and so, for practical purposes, the amount they can spend over the next two years.
Every school district’s expenses go up every year. With revenue capped, the only route to a balanced budget entails cuts in the programs and activities that generate the expenses.
Will there be school districts whose budgets will be so pinched by the revenue limits imposed by the legislature that their district schools will no longer be able to provide the “instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social sciences, health, physical education and foreign language” in accordance with the age and aptitude of the schools’ students that the Wisconsin Constitution requires?
Particularly for rural school districts with declining enrollment, the answer will almost certainly be yes. Under Vincent, which is controlling Wisconsin precedent, this will violate the constitutional rights of the students in any such districts. Under Vincent’s logic, this in turn would render the state’s school finance system unconstitutional.
Or so, at any rate, lower courts in Wisconsin will be obligated to hold if the issue is presented to them. If the issue were to reach the supreme court, the likelihood that the current Wisconsin Supreme Court would honor stare decisis and follow its Vincent precedent is another matter entirely.