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Wisconsin Republicans vote to raise K-12 spending by $128 million; Evers wants $1.5 billion

Wisconsin Republicans vote to raise K-12 spending by $128 million; Evers wants $1.5 billion

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Students wait for their transportation after school at Madison West High School on Thursday, May 6, 2021.

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Republicans on the Legislature's powerful budget committee directed an extra $128 million toward K-12 education over the next two years, a fraction of the $1.5 billion increase Gov. Tony Evers called for in his $91 billion plan.

Meanwhile, lawmakers plan to set aside another $350 million in a new education stabilization fund, rather than funnel the money directly toward schools, for spending in future biennial budgets — a move Democrats decried as they urged their GOP counterparts to instead funnel the money directly toward schools.

The combined figures, Joint Finance Committee leaders claim, would help the state meet the requirements needed to secure federal COVID-19 relief funds for K-12 and higher education institutions. Under that criterion, states need to maintain spending levels over the next two years for those institutions in order to get federal relief aid, dollars GOP lawmakers are relying on in crafting their education spending plans.

"It is hard to talk about how to fund our schools and ignore the fact that we have so much federal funding coming into the state," GOP committee member and state Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, of Oak Creek, said. "It is part of the conversation."

But Democrats warned Republicans' slim framework, which includes an increase that amounts to less than 10% of what Evers proposed when excluding the $350 million lawmakers effectively earmarked for future education spending, would jeopardize Wisconsin's eligibility for the federal COVID relief aid. 

Democrats also slammed Republicans, who approved their motion a 11-14 party-line vote, for declining to increase general school aids and up per-pupil aids, currently set at $742 a student

“This K-12 budget is absolutely nothing to be proud of and is certainly something I wouldn’t be talking about publicly if I were you,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of West Point.

Meanwhile, GOP legislators declined to increase the special education rate to 50% by the end of the upcoming biennium, as Evers wanted. Instead, they opted to raise it by some 2 percentage points, to 30% by mid-2023.

Republicans also voted to:

*Hike aid for largely rural, sparsely populated school districts by $6.3 million.

*Dole out $7 million more for school-based mental health collaboration grants and $12 million more for school social workers.

*Invest some $13 million in high-cost transportation aid.

Separately, committee members voted 11-4 along party lines to reward districts that haven’t been holding classes virtually in the last school year by pledging to use $114.6 million in incoming American Rescue Plan Act funding for schools that provided at least half of their instruction hours in-person, a $39 per-pupil increase for qualifying districts.

In previewing the action Thursday morning, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee pointed to the millions of dollars school districts have received and are poised to continue to receive from the feds in COVID-19 relief aid. The majority of the funds are distributed through the Title I formula, which is based on the percentage of low-income students in a district.

In discussing the highlights with reporters, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee pointed to the millions of dollars school districts have received and are poised to continue to receive from the feds in COVID-19 relief aid.

Thursday's K-12 budget votes came in the days after leaders on the committee said they became aware of a provision in the American Rescue Plan Act, the latest federal COVID relief plan, that requires states to maintain their budgetary investments in education at the same level they did over the last three fiscal years.

That means, reported Thursday morning, that GOP lawmakers would have to invest another $428 million into K-12 and higher education to allow Wisconsin to accept that money.

"We certainly will build a budget and invest in the priorities of the state of Wisconsin, as we've intended to do the entire time, and we will deal with that maintenance of effort issue along the way," said committee co-chair and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam. "We deal with part of it today certainly by making additional investments like we've been talking about in education."

Though Born said lawmakers just learned of the maintenance requirement "a couple days ago," the Department of Public Instruction on April 1 sent a request to the Joint Finance Committee that noted the requirement. Born and other lawmakers didn't answer a reporter's questions about the memo.

Prioritizing in-person education

Before voting on the budget, committee Republicans again sought to change the framework for distributing some federal COVID-19 relief funds to K-12 school districts by prioritizing those that have held classes in-person.

The effort came more than three months after members of the same panel took a similar vote, directing 10% of funds $686 million allocated to Wisconsin schools under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act based partly on how much in-person teaching a district has done in the 2020-21 school year.

Milwaukee Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke said lawmakers were "doubling down on the mistake you guys made in February."

"Come on, the pandemic happened. Nobody wanted it to happen. Nobody wanted to go virtual. Nobody planned for this to happen. People made the best decisions they possibly could to keep people safe and some districts are different than other districts," he said. "Everyone was doing the best they could. It was an unprecedented situation."

But state Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, countered that lawmakers "should be talking about whether schools are open," as she asked the committee: "How many years are you willing to lose on a child’s education?"

"This is about rewarding schools, teachers, superintendents, that went the extra mile and taught kids because they knew the detriment of not doing so," she added.

Under DPI's proposal, $77 million of the funds would've been allocated to districts using a formula grant process that sought to balance out what districts would be getting under the Title I formula.

Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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