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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Public Schools To Get Fraction Of Money Gov. Evers Wants

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Emily Files
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WUWM
Gov. Tony Evers called for $1.6 billion in new education funding but Wisconsin Republicans have approved just $150 million in new funds.

Updated Friday at 9:57 a.m. CDT

Wisconsin public schools would receive an additional $150 million in funding over two years under a Republican budget plan that the Legislature's budget committee approved Thursday.

That is less than 10% of the $1.6 billion Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed be spent on K-12 schools over the next two years. It is also about $200 million short of what would be needed to ensure that Wisconsin can keep $1.5 billion in federal funding under the coronavirus relief bill President Joe Biden signed in March.

Republicans defended their plan by saying they expect changes in the matching requirements to keep the federal money. In total, Wisconsin stands to receive $2.6 billion in federal coronavirus relief money.

“It is hard to talk about how we’re going to fund our schools and ignore the fact that we have so much federal funding coming into the state,” Republican Rep. Jessie Rodriguez said. “It is part of the conversation.”

The American Rescue Plan requires the state to spend the same proportion on K-12 schools and higher education in the upcoming fiscal year as was spent from 2016 through 2018. For K-12 schools, that means the state would have to spend $387 million more over the next two years, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

When asked whether the Republican spending plan would meet the federal requirements, budget committee co-chair Republican Rep. Mark Born said that issue was still being examined and would be dealt with “along the way.” He said he only recently became aware of the issue, even though it was raised in an April 8 memo from the fiscal bureau.

Republican Sen. Howard Marklein, the budget committee co-chair, said he believed Congress would change the requirements for states to meet the matching requirement.

“I’m aware of the risk, we considered it, we’ll talk about it as we go through,” Marklein said. “I believe the risk is manageable.”

Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke said counting on figuring out the issue later or the federal government changing its requirements is “far too risky."

Evers called for $1.6 billion in new education funding over two years and urged Republicans on the budget committee to accept his plan.

“By cutting or keeping spending levels flat, you continue to jeopardize Wisconsin’s short-term economic recovery and long-term economic prospects by not investing in our future,” Evers wrote to Republicans ahead of Thursday's meeting.

The majority of the federal funding coming to the state must be directed to schools based on how many low-income students they have. However, there was about $154 million available for the state to spend as it wishes.

Under the Republican plan, about $114 million would be distributed only to districts that were open for in-person instruction for at least half of this school year.

“We want to reward those districts that were open," said Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel.

The state education department wanted to spend the money differently, with all schools receiving at least $600,000. It would not have penalized schools for not holding in-person classes.

Democrats decried giving more to schools that opened, saying Republicans were creating winners and losers based on decisions made with the intent of protecting students and staff from the virus.

"The pandemic happened," said Goyke. "Nobody wanted it to happen. Nobody wanted to go virtual, nobody planned for this to happen. People made the best decisions they could to keep people safe."

The state's two largest school districts, Milwaukee and Madison, would not qualify for any of that money because they did not open for in-person instruction until midway through the second semester. Both cities are Democratic strongholds.

But the money districts are allocated based on their percentage of low-income students is protected from the Republican plan. MPS is expected to receive upwards of $700 million from the two most recent federal stimulus packages.

Republicans argued that the federal money schools are receiving can be used for a wide range of expenses. But school districts are hesitant to use the funding on long-term costs like staffing because the money is temporary, posing the possibility of a fiscal cliff.

Milwaukee Sen. LaTonya Johnson accused Republicans of shirking the state’s responsibility to pay for education.

"Now because Joe Biden has done his job, we somehow feel the need to not do ours," Johnson said.

Democrats also criticized Republicans for failing to provide a larger increase in special education funding. Right now, about 28% of schools’ special education costs are reimbursed by the state. The Republican plan would increase the reimbursement to an estimated 30% in 2022.

The Evers budget would increase reimbursement to 45% in the first year and 50% in the second.

The full Legislature would have to approve the budget being worked on by the committee before it would go to Evers, who could make changes with his broad veto power.

Two years ago, Evers signed a Republican-built budget that included an about $500 million boost for K-12.

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This story was updated to correct that the amount of federal money at risk of being lost is $1.5 billion, not $2.2 billion.

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