State’s pandemic school aid gets federal OK — along with a rewrite order

Education Dept. nixes GOP plan to favor schools that stayed in person in 2020-21

By: - December 7, 2021 6:47 am
Teacher talking with seated pupils in a math class, students look older elementary school age

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The federal government is ordering Wisconsin to rewrite part of its education pandemic relief plan that cuts out schools that went online for more than half of the 2020-21 school year because of COVID-19.

At stake is about $77 million in federal aid to address learning loss due to the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education on Monday gave its approval to Wisconsin’s overall plan for the pandemic funds, totaling more than $1.5 billion.

But along with that approval came an order for the state to revise its plans for about 7.5% of that amount because of how the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) rewrote the rules for spending that money. 

The pandemic relief funds for schools were part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which President Joe Biden signed in late March. The education-related portion of ARPA is called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program (ESSER).

ESSER split each state’s money, with 90% going directly to schools according to a federal formula and 10% allocated to state education agencies to choose how to spend it following federal guidelines.

Of the $1.54 billion that Wisconsin received, the state’s schools were allocated $1.39 billion while the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) got the remaining $154 million. DPI’s spending plan for that portion of the funds was subject to the federal Education Department’s approval. Under Wisconsin law, it also required approval from the Joint Finance Committee.

ARPA requires states to use half their discretionary amount — 5% of the state’s total ESSER allotment — to address pandemic-related learning loss. For Wisconsin, that is about $77 million.

The Education Department required states to show how their plans for the money would “support students who have been most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” with particular attention to those who had “missed the most in-person instruction” and “who did not consistently participate in remote instruction” in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

To follow that requirement, DPI proposed a formula for the learning-loss funds that favored school districts with the largest number of students living in poverty. DPI said in its report to the federal government that those districts were “likely impacted the most by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But when the Joint Finance Committee reviewed the DPI plan in May, the committee’s Republican majority rejected DPI’s approach. They raised the $77 million to $114.7 million of the total federal money, then created a grant program to be delivered in two rounds. 

Instead of directing the funds to focus on districts likely to have large numbers of students who had missed both in-person and remote instruction, the JFC allocated the first round of those grants exclusively to districts that operated more than half of the 2020-21 school year teaching in person. The second round would weight funds in favor of districts with more in-person hours over those with fewer in-person hours.

The intent was to reward schools that stayed open in person rather than going virtual, Republican lawmakers said at the time, disregarding concerns that doing so would likely heighten the spread of COVID-19. 

The committee’s four Democrats opposed the change and voted against its adoption.

DPI first submitted the plan to the U.S. Education Department on Aug. 27, including the JFC’s revision of the portion addressing pandemic learning loss. The federal agency required two sets of revisions, with the last revision submitted Nov. 22 — still including the JFC’s changes.

The JFC-authored provision was one reason, but not the only one, for the Education Department’s delay in approving the Wisconsin plan. Those delays left school districts around the state unsure whether or when they would get funds that they had budgeted from the federal program.

Low-income, high-minority urban schools left out 

In a letter Monday to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the DPI plan had been approved — but that the restriction inserted by JFC would have to go.

By excluding school districts that held virtual classes for more than half of the school year, the JFC changes to the Wisconsin plan violated federal law, Cardona wrote.

In DPI’s report to the federal government on how it will use the education pandemic funds, the department acknowledges that the JFC-authored plan “excludes significant numbers of underserved students from across the state from receiving additional ARP funds and resources.”

The largest group of students denied the funding under the JFC plan for “pandemic learning loss”  are in the state’s five largest urban districts — Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Green Bay and Kenosha. All five districts wouldn’t qualify under the JFC requirements that rewarded only in-person schools.

“Together these five districts serve over 30 percent of Wisconsin’s students experiencing poverty and nearly 70 percent of Wisconsin’s Black students,” the DPI report to the Education Department states.

Citing DPI’s statement, Cardona’s letter approving the overall plan noted that the state’s learning-loss plan did not measure up to the federal requirement that states use their discretionary portion of the ESSER funds to focus on groups of students hardest hit by the pandemic.

For that reason, Cardona’s letter states, the federal approval of Wisconsin’s plan for the funds “is conditional on Wisconsin revising” the problematic section of its plan. He said the money must be used “to address the academic impact of lost instructional time and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain subgroups of students as required by the ARP Act.”

While releasing the rest of Wisconsin’s ESSER money, the Education Department is holding back the $77 million for learning loss until DPI revises the plan.

Responding Monday to the federal release of the remaining 95% of the funds, Underly said in a statement that Wisconsin schools “will begin receiving much-needed federal relief in the coming weeks.” The funds will help school districts address “ongoing challenges presented by the pandemic” as well as the “new normal” that the pandemic has created for students, families, schools and communities, she said.

Underly said that DPI would work with leaders in the Legislature and in the federal Education Department to work out a new plan for the balance of the funds.

The co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), did not respond to an inquiry about the federal announcement.

In a statement posted at WisPolitics.com, however, Born and Marklein signaled they intended to defy the federal requirement and continue pursuing a policy favoring in-person schools.

The statement did not address the federal Education Department’s argument that by directing the learning-loss funds to schools that had remained open, the JFC plan excluded students most harmed during the pandemic and contradicted the requirements of the federal law.

Marklein and Born accused the administrations of Biden and Gov. Tony Evers (who has no direct role in the DPI’s administration of the ESSER money) of “putting politics over what is best for our kids,” and they blamed DPI and the Biden administration, which, they said “unnecessarily delayed this funding for our schools to play political games.”

Marklein and Born also stated that the JFC majority 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.”

This report was updated 12/7/2021 at 9:25 a.m. with a statement that was posted online from Joint Finance Committee Co-Chairs Rep. Mark Born and Sen. Howard Marklein.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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