Report finds shift in how Wisconsin schools are using federal relief money

Empty classroom desks

MADISON, Wis. — As Wisconsin schools have a little more than two years to spend their remaining pandemic relief money, a new report is showing how those federal dollars have been spent so far.

The report, released Wednesday by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, was compiled from data from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction and shows many school districts in the state have expanded the use of that money to address ongoing issues with operations and instruction after using the first wave of funding to address immediate COVID-related needs.

The research found most of the first round of funding across the state was used to cover educational technology expenses (a total of $60.3 million statewide), COVID-19 response ($46.6 million), and address long-term school closures ($27 million). Costs in those categories cover everything from student laptops and hotspots to remote instruction software and PPE.

Wisconsin Policy Forum round 1 spending graph

Courtesy: Wisconsin Policy Forum

The Wisconsin Policy Forum also found that even when accounting for different variables like school district locale, size, and income level, those top three categories of spending remained at the top of the list, although the order did change — for example, urban and suburban districts spent more on technology, while districts in rural areas spent more on COVID-19 response.

In the second round of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding, which is still ongoing, those three top spending categories have remained the same, but the Wisconsin Policy Forum found the proportions have changed. Most spending now is being used to address long-term school closures, accounting for a total of $51.7 million statewide so far. COVID-19 response has accounted for $41.8 million of spending in the second round of funding, while educational technology has slipped to third place, accounting for $29.4 million.

Wisconsin Policy Forum round 2 spending graph

Courtesy: Wisconsin Policy Forum

The report concludes that the numbers indicate districts are starting to turn their attention to student needs and other school priorities in the second round of funding as the initial stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has somewhat subsided.

School districts in Wisconsin have to submit plans to the Department of Public Instruction for each round of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding in order to get the money. Once the plans are approved, districts can buy the things they need and then submit claims for reimbursement. The Wisconsin Policy Forum report is based on those reimbursement claims, meaning the report may not reflect a full picture of school costs and spending.

Large amounts of money, specifically in the third round of ESSER funding, remain unclaimed in the state as districts weigh how best to spend the money. The data analyzed by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found less than one percent of ESSER III funds have been claimed so far. The report also found the Wisconsin State Budget, which did not increase state aid for public schools as Republicans pointed to the one-time funding from the federal government, has also complicated those decisions.

Federal law says the second round of ESSER funding must be spent by September 30, 2023, while the third round of ESSER funding needs to be spent by September 30, 2024, with 90-day periods after both of those dates for schools to file reimbursement claims.

You can read the full report here or embedded below.