GOP state legislators vote on $150M school spending increase, unclear whether it’s enough to keep federal aid

Gop Education Proposal

MADISON, Wis. — Republican leaders plan to designate a tenth of the school spending that Gov. Evers requested for the next biennium budget, citing billions coming in from three federal COVID relief bills.

However, it’s not clear yet whether Republican plans for state school spending will meet requirements from the federal government in order to keep $2.6 billion in aid from those three relief acts.

In details released Thursday morning, Republican leaders on the Joint Finance Committee said their proposals would include a $150 million increase for this biennium, as well as $350 million set aside that they hope future legislatures will designate for schools. Additionally, their plan would designate some of the federal money for schools who stayed in person throughout the pandemic.

“As we have said in the past, these schools have incurred significant expenses to make sure students could safely learn in the classroom, and they deserve our support,” Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said in a press conference Thursday. “Our average school will receive $2,898 per pupil from federal ESSER funds alone,” he added, referencing federal aid over which state largely has no control.

The legislature can decide how to spend about 10% of the federal aid coming into the state’s schools. As Republican leaders promised earlier in the year, they are designating much of that to reward schools who remained in person during the pandemic. The plan guarantees a minimum of $781 per pupil to those school districts, which would be based on whether in-person learning represented 50% or more of the education hours in the past year.

Districts devoting half or more of their learning hours to in-person learning would be eligible, which Democrats say will lead to confusion and uncertainty because those figures won’t be known until summer or early fall.

“That process is gonna result in some real inequities, some real winners and losers,” Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said Thursday. “Some of these communities had spikes and spread; what are you gonna do when the rate of infection was rising in the fall? Have a crystal ball that Republicans in (the state budget committee) would have additional money for you?”

Republicans said it was a way to reward schools who continued in-person schooling, pointing out that this was an addition for schools; most of the federal money will go to districts based on a federal formula that prioritizes districts with students in poverty.

“The number one topic at all my listening sessions in my district: how children were harmed by the school closures,” Senator Mary Felzowski (R-Irma) said.

But some of that federal aid is dependent on how much states increase spending in K-12 education, with federal guidelines that Republicans aren’t sure yet if they’re meeting, according to an April memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

“The only certainty about this motion is the amount of uncertainty Republicans are creating,” Democrat Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) said in Thursday’s budget meeting. “We may end up finding out in March of 2022 that what Republicans are proposing, some of it you can’t do.”

While GOP leaders are advertising their education budget as including a $500 million increase, Joint Finance Committee co-chair Mark Born said schools will only see $150 million of that over the current biennium. The remaining $350 million will be set aside for future investments–money that the next legislature will have to build into new budgets.

The minimal spending increases from the state budget are due to the massive influx of federal aid, Republicans said.

“This guarantee alone constitutes the largest single infusion of cash that many of our schools have ever seen,” Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said of the state-controlled federal aid.