Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

High-achieving Wisconsin students would get $5,000 scholarships each year to attend UW System schools under a new bill two GOP lawmakers laid out Tuesday.

The bill, which has UW System President Ray Cross’ support, would pay for those scholarships by selling off the remaining lands held by the state’s oldest agency — the Board of Commissioner of Public Lands — to the Department of Natural Resources.

Cross said at a Capitol news conference it’s a “really creative” approach to setting up scholarships that would help ensure high-performing high school students stay in Wisconsin, instead of heading to a state that might offer them a full ride for getting high test scores.

“I’m really excited about this,” he said. “This is amazing.”

The bill is authored by Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, who said it would provide the largest state-sponsored scholarship in the state’s history. They said it would give upwards of $5 million of scholarships each year to more than 1,000 Wisconsin students when it’s fully implemented. The UW System would be responsible for figuring out how those scholarships are awarded.

Nass said we’re “losing our brightest and our best” to other states and that one of the bill’s strengths is it’s available to state residents no matter their income, as the middle class can often “get shortchanged” under current aid models.

“Those students go to another school and they don’t come back in most cases,” he said.

The liberal One Wisconsin Now criticized the merit-based approach, saying the state should instead focus on helping those with the most financial need by investing more money in financial aid.

“Giving some rich kid who’s had every advantage imaginable $5,000 that could go to someone where it might make the difference between whether they are the first member of their family to go to college or not, is a complete failure of priorities by the authors of this scheme,” OWN Executive Director Scot Ross said.

But August said “the beauty of the scholarship is that it’s merit-based.” Ensuring the scholarship is available to all regardless of income levels, he said, is “important because we can really get the best students in the state to try and stay here.”

Under the bill, the DNR would use $10 million each year in bonding under its stewardship program to acquire the roughly 75,000 acres of land that BCPL holds.

BCPL still holds about 2 percent of the land the state got from the federal government in the mid-1800s. Much of the rest was sold more than a century ago, with the money from sales going into trust funds that BCPL currently manages. The agency distributes investment earnings to beneficiaries like school libraries and UW.

UW currently gets about $300,000 each year from the BCPL’s Normal School Fund, an amount that State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk said is “simply too low.” Adamczyk, who’s one of the three BCPL board members, said that would jump to about $5 million under the bill and that he would “lead the effort” to get BCPL approval of the land sales if the bill passes. The other two members are Secretary of State Doug La Follette and Attorney General Brad Schimel.

BCPL Executive Secretary Jonathan Barry said the agency can’t take a position on proposals unless authorized by the board. But he said one consideration for lawmakers would be that the land sale would require DNR to pay interest fees to the borrower that handles the stewardship bonds.

Asked about those interest payments, August said they’re still working on getting exact figures and that the BCPL funds that would go toward the scholarships “wouldn’t eat any of the interest.”

DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the agency doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

See the bill:

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