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Wisconsin public schools to get fraction of what Evers wants

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Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) at a news conference before a Joint Finance Committee meeting Thursday ,May 27, 2021 at the Capitol in Madison, Wis. He is co-chairman of the committee. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin public schools would receive an additional $150 million in funding over two years under a Republican budget plan that the Legislature’s budget committee approved Thursday.

That is less than 10% of the $1.6 billion Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed be spent on K-12 schools over the next two years. It is also about $200 million short of what would be needed to ensure that Wisconsin can keep $1.5 billion in federal funding under the coronavirus relief bill President Joe Biden signed in March.

Republicans defended their plan by saying they expect changes in the matching requirements to keep the federal money. In total, Wisconsin stands to receive $2.6 billion in federal coronavirus relief money.

“It is hard to talk about how we’re going to fund our schools and ignore the fact that we have so much federal funding coming into the state,” Republican Rep. Jessie Rodriguez said. “It is part of the conversation.”

The American Rescue Plan requires the state to spend the same proportion on K-12 schools and higher education in the upcoming fiscal year as was spent from 2016 through 2018. For K-12 schools, that means the state would have to spend $387 million more over the next two years, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

When asked whether the Republican spending plan would meet the federal requirements, budget committee co-chair Rep. Mark Born said that issue was still being examined and would be dealt with “along the way.” He said he only recently became aware of the issue, even though it was raised in an April 8 memo from the fiscal bureau.

Republican Sen. Howard Marklein, the budget committee co-chair, said he believed Congress would change the requirements for states to meet the matching requirement.

“I’m aware of the risk, we considered it, we’ll talk about it as we go through,” Marklein said. “I believe the risk is manageable.”

Counting on figuring out the issue later or the federal government changing its requirements is “far too risky,” said Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke.

Evers called for $1.6 billion in new education funding over two years and urged Republicans on the budget committee to accept his plan.

“By cutting or keeping spending levels flat, you continue to jeopardize Wisconsin’s short-term economic recovery and long-term economic prospects by not investing in our future,” Evers wrote to Republicans ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

The majority of the federal funding coming to the state must be directed to schools based on how many low-income students they have. However, there was about $154 million available for the state to spend as it wishes.

Under the Republican plan, about $114 million would be distributed only to districts that were open for in-person instruction for at least half of this school year.

“We want to reward those districts that were open,” said Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel.

The state education department wanted to spend the money differently, with all schools receiving at least $600,000. It would not have penalized schools for not holding in-person classes.

Democrats decried giving more to schools that opened, saying Republicans were creating winners and losers based on decisions made with the intent of protecting students and staff from the virus.

The state’s two largest school districts, Milwaukee and Madison, would not qualify for any of that money because they did not open for in-person instruction until midway through the second semester. Both cities are Democratic strongholds.

The Republican plan also would reimburse 30% of special education costs in the second year of the budget, up from 28.2% under current law. The Evers budget would increase reimbursement to 45% in the first year and 50% in the second.

Democrats said the GOP funding level wouldn’t be nearly enough.

The full Legislature would have to approve the budget being worked on by the committee before it would go to Evers, who could make changes with his broad veto power.

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