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

Federal government approves Wisconsin's $1.5 billion school pandemic aid plan, with a major caveat

Signs at Milwaukee's Clemens Elementary instruct students and staff on how to mitigate COVID-19 risks.
Emily Files
Signs at Milwaukee's Clemens Elementary instruct students and staff on how to mitigate COVID-19 risks.

The U.S. Department of Education has approved Wisconsin’s plan for $1.5 billion in federal pandemic aid for schools.

But there is a major caveat, which will continue to create uncertainty for dozens of school districts about just how much money they’ll receive.

READ: Wisconsin pandemic aid plan hasn't gotten federal approval, leaving some school districts in limbo

Here's the caveat: the Department of Education will not allow Wisconsin to use a portion of the federal funds to reward districts that were open in-person and exclude districts that utilized remote learning.

Wisconsin’s Republican-led Joint Committee on Finance inserted a provision into the state ESSER 3 plan to direct $114 million only to schools that were in-person for most of last school year. Another portion would go only to rural districts.

The finance committee provisions make up a small amount of Wisconsin $1.5 billion in ESSER 3 funding, which stands for Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief. But they've been a sticking point holding up federal approval of Wisconsin’s plan, which means some school districts have delayed planning for the money that’s meant to address the impacts of the pandemic on students.

After months of back-and-forth, the Department of Education approved Wisconsin’s ESSER 3 plan Monday. But the department is holding back 5% of the funding (about $77 million) until Wisconsin changes the finance committee-authored provisions.

In a letter to Wisconsin State Superintendent Jill Underly, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the ESSER 3 funds are intended to help students who were most impacted by the pandemic.

Cardona wrote that the finance committee provisions "will explicitly exclude the students who lost the most in-person instructional time as a result of the pandemic...conflicting with the [American Rescue Plan] Act's statutory requirement that the State reserve address the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on certain student subgroups."

Georgetown University school finance expert Marguerite Roza said the Department of Education has given conditional approval to other states, but this is different.

"We’ve seen some of those, but the caveats are really minor, not major like this one," Roza said. "This one is: go back and re-meet with your legislature and change a law that’s on the books. That’s a massive caveat."

The co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance released a statement in response to the Department of Education's decision Monday.

“The JFC and Republicans in the legislature continue to put kids first rather than play partisan political games," Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) wrote. "We all know that our kids need to be in school for in-person instruction—even DOE acknowledges that children were harmed by virtual learning and stresses the importance of in-person instruction"

Born and Marklein said they would "continue to work on a plan to provide the remaining $77 million to schools that prioritized in-person instruction when our kids needed it most."

A DPI spokesperson said the department plans to work with the finance committee on a new proposal.

This continues to leave some school districts in limbo. For example, Kettle Moraine School District in Waukesha County expected to receive more than $2 million from the in-person school set-aside. Now, it’s unclear how much ESSER 3 money the district will get.

"It's disappointing because not having some budget certainty on when and if we will get some of that funding is complicating our planning," said Kettle Moraine Chief Financial Officer John Stellmacher. "Especially as we talk about the district budget for the 2022-23 school year."

Other districts, like Milwaukee Public Schools, have gone ahead with their ESSER 3 planning. That’s because 90% of the ESSER 3 funds are automatically distributed to districts with higher student poverty levels, so MPS’ portion of the money is much larger, and more certain, than affluent districts like Kettle Moraine.

Wisconsin was one of the last four states in the country to get federal approval of its ESSER 3 plan.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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