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Joint Finance Reworks Fed Money to Reward Schools That Offered In-Person Instruction

By John Forester | May 27, 2021

From WisPolitics.com…

The GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee today reworked a $154 million pot of federal money to reward districts that provided in-person instruction for at least half of the 2020-21 school year.

The motion, approved 11-4 along party lines, also would give priority to small, rural schools for a portion of the money.

The bulk of the federal money — $114.6 million — would create a grant program for districts that provided in-person instruction for at least 50 percent of the 2020-21 school year. It would amount to a minimum grant of $781 per student.

Districts such as Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two largest, wouldn’t qualify for the funds after spending most of the school year largely providing only virtual instruction.

Dems knocked that move. But Republicans argued it was simply about leveling the playing field because large, urban districts are gaining more from the overall program than others.

The money is part of $1.5 billion from a third round of funding under federal COVID-19 packages. Of that, nearly $1.4 billion is being divided among districts according to a formula based on the number of students they have in poverty.

Milwaukee Public Schools will qualify for $505 million of that money from this round of federal money alone.

“MPS is going to be just fine getting over $7,000 per pupil just in this one act,” said Joint Finance Co-chair Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green.

But Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, balked at the comparison. She slammed her GOP counterparts for failing to grasp that MPS is only in line for so much federal money because of the level of poverty.

“I have never seen people that were so envious of the poor when it comes to Title 1 funding,” Johnson said. “Really? Because I guarantee you those poor families would trade with you in a heartbeat for your home, your district, for your school systems.”

The Department of Public Instruction originally proposed $39.4 million of the federal money to create minimum grants of $600,000 for the districts that received less than that through the federal formula. The agency plan also included another $6.8 million for administrative costs.

The agency also proposed following federal earmarks of $77 million for learning loss,
$15.4 million for summer learning and $15.4 million for after school programming.

The JFC motion nixed DPI’s plans for the minimum grants and administrative costs. It used those two pots of money and the $77 million for learning loss to create the money for in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, the GOP motion gave districts that qualify for sparsity aid — typically, small rural schools — the priority to qualify for the after school and summer school funds.

The motion also would create a $5 million reading program.

Gov. Tony Evers has the option to veto the committee reworking of DPI’s plan. But the committee, controlled 12-4 by Republicans, would have the numbers to override a veto.

Guidance from the federal government included a requirement that the money for learning loss, after school programs and summer schools address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student groups such as those who are homeless or are in foster care.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, questioned the Legislative Fiscal Bureau whether the GOP plan meets those requirements. The agency said it was unclear, though federal guidance on COVID money has been constantly evolving. If the federal government decided the state plan was inadequate, it would be up to DPI to try amending the plan until it was approved. If a deal couldn’t be worked out, the money would go unused.

The money is part of a reimbursement program in which districts that spend money on an allowable expense can then apply to DPI for reimbursement.

“The only certainty of this motion is the amount of uncertainty that Republicans are creating,” Erpenbach said.

The motion also includes an earmark for the Lincoln Academy, a new independent charter school in Beloit. The school, which won’t open until this fall, would receive $781 per student.

The public charter school has ties to Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, a GOP megadonor.

Rep. Amy Loudebenck, R-Clinton, defended the earmark, saying there is no mechanism for the money being sent to districts through the federal stimulus package to follow children to the districts they attend next year. For example, she said the Beloit School District will receive $3,277 per student from the federal formula with some 300 of those students leaving the district to attend Lincoln Academy this fall.

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