What does cannabis legalization have to do with public education?

Funding boost and racial justice bring two unlikely issues together in rural Wisconsin

Eau Claire, WI – Cannabis for rural schools? It’s hard to believe such a messaging campaign exists in the same country that once hung on every one of Nancy Reagan’s words. But in “America’s Dairyland,” the unfailing swing state of Wisconsin, this message is alive and growing. In February, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers proposed a state budget that explicitly called for cannabis legalization — and investing the new tax revenue in public schools in rural parts of the state.

The budget that ultimately passed the legislature and was signed into law hardly resembles the one he put forward, removing almost all of his proposed new school funds, including this proposal.

Still, the campaign to legalize marijuana in Wisconsin has some ties to rural education. In fact, the issues are linked well enough that Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, wasn’t surprised to see them paired.

“They’re interesting bedfellows, but I think any type of tax that can be added for something that — let’s put it this way — is recreational, people aren’t required to have to do it and be taxed for it, it’s those that want to do it and are willing to pay the tax to do it,” Kaukl said. 

Rural schools in Wisconsin need the extra revenue, and he’s seen similar models work in other states — namely Colorado, where tax revenue for cannabis sales is used for schools’ building, grounds, renovations, and construction costs.

“You don’t have to go to referendum for those types of things now,” he said, “because you have money for it. And because you have money for those things, it also keeps money in your general fund that maybe you had to use for maintenance and upkeep that now you don’t have to take out of your general fund so that leaves more money in your general fund for other things like special education, curriculum, and salaries.”

Beyond finances, many of those organizing for cannabis legalization in Wisconsin rest on societal shifts that, if enacted, would directly reach public schools and students — and in some cases would be even more relevant to those in rural Wisconsin.

A pair that may seem more complementary to cannabis legalization is the movement for racial justice and incarceration. Wisconsin proponents of legalization often point to disproportionate policing and sentencing of Black people and other people of color; Milwaukee recently joined some other Wisconsin cities in reducing its initial fine for marijuana possession to $1, thanks in large part to the grassroots efforts of Legalize MKE and others.

Rural communities — and especially those involving kids and families — know this issue, too. “The facts are out there on that. We have a lot of folks that are locked up because of marijuana possession and things like that,” Kaukl said.

Public schools are one of the rare venues where the whole of a local community comes together regularly. Racism, incarceration, and forced instability in that broader community affect students and public schools.

That’s why issues like economic health are also relevant to this conversation. More than in urban or suburban settings, much of the economy surrounding rural schools rests on agriculture. And a newly-legal crop is part of that conversation.

“I think it opens up some other opportunities agriculturally, you know, to grow off what’s already happening in the state of Wisconsin with the hemp production,” Kaukl said. (Those who follow farming in Wisconsin have wondered for a while whether the hemp-growing industry suggests a future recreational cannabis-growing industry as well.) “I think there’s some really good groundwork already laid there, and I think it can help the agricultural side of things too. And I think that’s where some of that rural connect comes into play also,” Kaukl said.

Still, the messaging marriage of marijuana and rural schools draws a note of caution: “I get that concern with, you know, do we want to be using basically what some people would term drug money to support public schools?” Kaukl said. “It’s probably just like anything else: You’d definitely want to see folks at least 18 years of age — or 21 — … to make sure that it’s staying out of the schools, per se.”

And in the broader picture, even though it’s been taken off the table in this year’s state budget, the racial justice movement to legalize marijuana and invest in schools is winning the messaging war.

In a state where few things can cut through political polarization (and often urban-rural divisions), this issue proves popular across the Wisconsin map. 

“Already, the number of mock referendum items that have been on ballots already that have passed overwhelmingly — and a lot of those are happening in rural areas,” Kaukl said. “The county I live in — it’s purple but I would say it leans more conservative in many parts — they even passed it here. I was shocked. And it wasn’t even close.”

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