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

Wisconsin School Leaders Discuss Plans For Federal COVID Relief

Alan Borsuk and school leaders
Alan Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University, interviews Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Keith Posley, Kettle Moraine School District Business Manager John Stellmacher and Rocketship Schools in Wisconsin Executive Director Brittany Kinser.

Wisconsin K-12 schools are deciding how to spend more than $2 billion from three federal COVID relief packages.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money can be spent over the next three years. It’s meant to help students recover after the educational disruptions of the pandemic.

Marquette Law School held a virtual discussion with three school leaders Wednesday to talk about the federal funding.

"This is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children," said Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent Keith Posley. "Our children deserve these funds and more to make sure they truly get the quality education they deserve and live that American dream."

MPS is receiving more ESSER funding than any other Wisconsin district — about $11,000 per student — because 90% of the aid is distributed based on student poverty levels.

MPS has already made plans for its first two rounds of ESSER funding, including major investments in air quality upgrades, professional development and new textbooks. The district is still figuring out how to spend the third and largest pot of money: about $506 million.

>>MPS Invites Public Input On How To Spend $506 Million In Federal COVID Relief

All districts are required to use 20% of ESSER III funds for learning loss. Posley did not give a specific plan to address learning loss, but said it’s a top priority.

"We have unfinished learning that we are working on with our young people," he said. "We were able to tease those data points out through statewide tests that were taken this past year as well as classroom-based assessments."

Milwaukee’s independently-run Rocketship charter schools do have some specific plans for the third round of ESSER funding. Rocketship Executive Director Brittany Kinser said her two schools will have additional staff doing tutoring and leading small-group interventions for students struggling in literacy and math.

"We’re hiring additional interventionists, we’re investing in high-quality professional development for all staff to address the unfinished learning and the learning loss," Kinser said.

Kinser said Rocketship also plans to user ESSER funds to pay for a mental health professional in each school. "We know during the pandemic many of our students stopped logging in [to virtual classes] and we couldn't get in touch with them and their families," Kinser said. "So we know we're going to need additional mental health supports to meet the needs of our students."

The Rocketship charter schools are projected to receive about $5,000 per student.

Some schools are expecting a lot less because they serve a more affluent student population.

For example, the Kettle Moraine School District was initially projected to receive less than $300 per student. Business Manager John Stellmacher said that number might go up as the state distributes the 10% of ESSER money that’s not tied to student poverty.

But Stellmacher said districts need to be careful with how they spend the money. "Since these are one-time funds, we want to be very deliberate that the investments we’re making are either one-time costs or we have a plan for the future in terms of how we’re able to sustain those programs or positions once the funds are gone," he said.

Stellmacher said infrastructure upgrades and professional development are examples of one-time investments that could have long-term benefits. He said Kettle Moraine is still working on its plan.

Education finance expert Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University was also part of the Marquette panel. She talked about some of the trends she is seeing in how schools plan to spend ESSER funds.

"We’ve seen early out the gate a lot of districts have made commitments to some sort of thank you payments to staff — that’s been a common theme," Roza said. "Some filling budget gaps if they have them, a lot of plans to hire counselors, nurses, specialists, there’s some class size reduction efforts, a lot of investment in facilities projects."

Roza said the coronavirus relief packages provide an unprecedented amount of federal money with few restrictions. And she noted that there aren’t strict accountability measures, though schools are required to get community input before finalizing plans.

"There is an expectation by parents to see how this investment in some way makes up for the last year," Roza said. "It’s been a hard year for students who got a year older and may have missed out on something. And parents have an expectation that they’re going to see that money adding value for their students."

Roza said input and scrutiny from families may be the main way to hold districts accountable for how they spend the windfall of federal aid.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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