Stop playing politics and release the federal funds public schools needed a year ago

December 14, 2021 6:30 am
Underly and Evers on the first day of school with kids outside on sidewalk

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly with Gov. Tony Evers | Evers’ Facebook

In May of this year, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) put forward a fair and common-sense plan for allocating federal ESSER III funds (funds allocated by Congress for COVID relief) that was rejected by the Joint Finance Committee. Had it passed, the DPI plan would have quickly moved much needed funds to schools across the state and would have provided students, families and school leaders a level of certainty heading into the school year this fall. 

Rather than approving the plan, the Joint Finance Committee voted (along party lines) to withhold distribution of 10% of the funds and re-allocate them to districts based on their use of in-person instruction during the 2020-21 pandemic school year. This move was instantly challenged by the U.S. Department of Education, which jeopardized the entire pot of COVID relief funds for Wisconsin’s schools. 

Today, those funds are still in limbo, and $77 million is at risk of never reaching our classrooms. These are funds needed by schools to pay for expenses incurred in COVID adaptations. Many public schools went back to school in Fall 2021 in a financial deficit mode. DPI has been trying, consistently and persistently, to resolve this with state and federal lawmakers since May. 

Last  week the U.S. Dept. of Education announced that part of Wisconsin’s funds were being withheld because of the political strings attached by the Legislature,  tying the money to in-person learning.  The chairs of the Joint Finance Committee – Rep. Mark Born and Sen. Howard Marklein and Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jill Underly, had a heated exchange in which the legislators demonstrated the  unconscionable depths to which they are willing to sink, playing politics with Wisconsin’s children, all of whom need our support.

In their letter to Dr. Underly, the Joint Finance leaders call on the DPI to do more harm to the children who were most harmed by the pandemic, a demand the DPI cannot possibly take seriously.

Wisconsin will not forget that this entire debacle comes on the heels of a letter signed by 43 (!) Wisconsin lawmakers, including Marklein, the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, asking the feds not to provide any COVID relief. These leaders did nothing to support Wisconsin children through the pandemic, and when the federal government stepped up to help, they tried to block federal aid. Then, when it was apparent that the state had a unprecedented $2 billion surplus of funds, they stiffed the schools and the children they serve by not providing a basic increase in funding in the biennial budget.  They had the nerve to suggest that districts use one-time federal COVID relief as a substitute for state aid.

Kudos to Dr. Underly for standing up to these shenanigans and doing her job. It’s time for the Legislature to follow her lead and put the needs of our children ahead of their own political games.


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Heather DuBois Bourenane
Heather DuBois Bourenane

Heather DuBois Bourenane is passionate about ensuring our public schools are places of joy for all students. She is a proud public school parent, a founding member of Support Sun Prairie Schools and the Sun Prairie Action Resource Coalition, and co-director of the SPARC Local Action Fund 501(c)(3). She taught college English and literature and worked in K-12 outreach at UW-Madison before becoming the executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. She has been with the Network since 2015.