DPI, finance committee leaders clash over school pandemic relief money

Republican lawmakers demand plan to ‘reward’ in-person schools instead of aiding students with the most learning loss

By: - December 10, 2021 11:46 am
Virtual school

Lucas Law | Unsplash

Wisconsin’s schools chief and Republican lawmakers are in a standoff after the lawmakers doubled down this week on their plan to reward schools that stayed open during the pandemic with federal money that was supposed to help students whose schools were closed.

The clash follows the U.S. Education Department’s rejection this week of the Republican plan, with an instruction to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to submit a revision that follows the federal rules for the money.

The dispute is over $77 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) given to DPI to address learning loss to students during the pandemic. The money is part of the $1.5 billion from the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) program that was allotted to Wisconsin schools under the federal pandemic relief bill enacted in March.

In May, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) rewrote DPI’s plan for the $77 million. Instead of spending the money to help students who had fallen behind when schools shifted to virtual teaching — the federal government’s stated purpose for the money — JFC’s Republican majority directed the funds go to schools that had remained open at last 50% of the 2020-2021 school year.

The Republican JFC plan excluded five large, urban state school districts, all of which had favored online classes in order to avert the spread of the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic: Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay. All Democrats on the budget committee voted against the move.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told DPI that the plan violated federal law, which requires the money to 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.”

Joint Finance co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born in front of microphones at news conference
Joint Finance co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born | Wisconsin Eye

On Thursday, the JFC’s co-chairs, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) doubled down on their defiance of that requirement in a letter to DPI Superintendent Jill Underly that was peppered with boldface type and brusque commands.

“The Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) and Republicans in the legislature designed our plan for the ARP ESSER III funds to put kids first by rewarding the school districts that worked very hard to keep kids in the classroom for in-person instruction during the pandemic,” Marklein and Born wrote.

“Rather than reward the school districts that worked hard to return kids to the classroom, the DOE [U.S. Education Department] and DPI are intent on sending these dollars to school districts that kept kids out of the classroom,” the letter states. It called the federal government’s denial of the plan “politically motivated” and ordered Underly: “Direct your staff to immediately propose an alternative plan that addresses our legislative intent.”

In her response Thursday — which had its share of boldface type as well — Underly called the Marklein-Born letter “disappointing, disingenuous, and nakedly political.”

Jill Underly
Jill Underly (via Facebook)

“Despite numerous warnings about how the intent of parts of your motion was in direct conflict with the language of the American Rescue Plan Act — including from the United States Department of Education — you forced DPI and our schools into a game of high-stakes chicken. And you lost.”

ARPA specifically required the state to institute “a plan to meet the needs of the students who lost the most learning during COVID,” Underly wrote. “Your plan did not address this.”

Underly also took umbrage at the JFC co-chairs’ recurring references to using the plan to “reward” school districts that maintained in-person classes.

“COVID did not come about for you to hand out political favors,” she wrote. “Federal dollars, which are not yours to decide on how to use, are also not yours to reward those who meet your favor.”

Underly noted that $2 billion in unappropriated state funds remain that could be used to help school districts that provided in-person classes, and said that she would support that as a policy goal. “But that does not allow you to neglect your duties to follow the law,” she added.

Underly called it “shocking and disheartening” that the Marklein-Born letter did not mention the work that the DPI staff and the lawmakers’ staffers have been doing “to find a middle ground” on the issue. She concluded: “I believe there is plenty of room for compromise, but the political nonsense needs to stop. We have ideas, it’s just a matter of if you are willing to work with us, and if you are willing to follow the law.”

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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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