Wisconsin students deserve more from their schools, and from their state lawmakers. That’s the message protesters urging more funding for public schools sought to hammer home in Deerfield on Monday.
“We believe that every single kid deserves an equally excellent education. Period,” Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said during a morning rally at Deerfield High School that energized fifteen activists on a march this week from Palmyra to Madison, who sipped coffee and made and heard speeches at the school’s John Polzin Field.
Cheers of “Pump, pump, pump it up. Pump that school funding up,” echoed through the stadium.
DuBois Bourenane is an organizer of a four-day, 60-mile protest march from Palmyra to Madison, that seeks more public-school funding in the state budget.
Protesters arrived in Deerfield on Sunday night after a midday stop that day Cambridge. After Monday morning’s rally, four marchers continued on from Deerfield, walking nine miles to a rally at Marshall High School and finally ending the day at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie.
The protest wraps up Tuesday with a 14-mile walk from Sun Prairie to downtown Madison. The marchers will hold a rally at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the State Capitol, after heading out from Madison East High School on the last leg of their trip.
The rally in the State Capitol is timed to coincide with the State Assembly voting on the state budget, which is expected to happen Tuesday.
DuBois Bourenane said the current draft of the state budget cuts more than $900 million of education funding, a far cry from the $1.4 billion in funding for schools in Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget.
“It’s easy to think when people are marching for a better budget, that it’s all about the money, but the real truth is, it’s not about the money at all, it’s about the kids,” DuBois Bourenane said.
Protesters are pushing for more school aid, and more money for special education. State government reimburses districts 25 percent of funds they spend on special education; marchers would like to see 60 percent.
“It’s about looking across the state and seeing that some kids have so much and some kids have so little and realizing that the state is willfully playing a role in making that gap between have and have-not wider and wider with every budget they pass,” DuBois Bourenane said.
Advocates also said the march was inspired by the possible dissolution of Palmyra-Eagle School District, after voters there rejected an April 2019 referendum to fund the district’s operating costs.
“Enough with the special education reimbursement rate of only 30 percent...Enough with inadequate support of mental health services. Enough with no increase in support for English-language learners. Enough with expanding a voucher program which sends our public taxpayer money to private schools,” retired Lake Mills teacher Sandy Whisler said in a speech in Deerfield.
Whisler’s call drew cheers, snaps and agreement from the crowd.
“Enough with a school funding system that forces districts to pass referenda with operating costs and then if that fails, to face closing their district as is happening to our friends in Palmyra,” she continued.
In addition to Whisler, the protest in Deerfield drew several current and retired educators. Lake Mills teacher Deb Galstad shared her experience with resources and funding becoming limited, and the impact of that on her students. She described it as “doing more with less.”
“While doing the best with what we have, we are often left short-handed. Exhausting and stretching staff to their limit is not conducive to a healthy learning environment for anyone,” Galstad said.
While some marchers may opt in and out of the journey from Palmyra to Madison, Megan O’Halloran, a Milwaukee School Board member, is walking all 60 miles.
“The money is there. Is the will? Is the backbone, to do what’s right for our children? Because that’s what we’re marching for,” O’Halloran said in a speech in Deerfield
O’Halleran came up with the idea for the protest, after seeing an educator in New Jersey march to save several schools in his district.
“I thought this was just going to be me by myself, so to see something like this come together on such short notice shows how important our public schools are to communities,” O’Halloran said.
The march has drawn significant support from communities the protesters have marched through so far, which include Palmyra, Fort Atkinson and Cambridge. O’Halloran said local organizations have hosted meals, opened their spaces and cheered them on.
DuBois Bourenane said hearing the stories of these small communities has been “heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking.”
“All of these little stories that we’ve heard as we’ve met people along the journey have really showed us all of the ways the state is failing its kids,” she said.
“That’s why I find myself at times, a frustrated, angry and grumpy grandma because our lawmakers refuse to work together, refuse to understand the value of investing in public education for all children regardless of their zip code, refuse to understand that our public schools are the heart of our communities,” Whisler said.
So, what is it like to walk 60 miles?
“I am a runner, and I do marathons so I have some experience with endurance sports,” O’Halleran said. “I think it’s a cool way to see the state, honestly.”
“My feet are a little banged up. I had to get a different pair of shoes… because I have a bunch of blisters. Just wrapped those up this morning and we’re going to keep on going. We’ll see how tomorrow looks, we’ll see how I am on day four,” she continued.
Despite the early hour, and the fatigue of walking for three days, protesters were fired up during the speeches in Deerfield.
“Are you ready to stand up for the schools our kids deserve?” DuBois Bourenane asked the crowd in the stadium. They responded with a resounding “yes.”
“Are you ready to fight for the budget that’s best for kids? Are you ready to move from Deerfield to Madison over the next two days to call on lawmakers to do the right thing? And are you ready to hold those lawmakers accountable if they vote for a budget that underserves our kids yet again?”
As the crowd broke out in applause, DuBois Bourenane added “It’s time, it’s time.”