By M.D. Kittle
MADISON —A coalition of conservative organizations is urging Wisconsin policymakers to use federal pandemic relief funds to help fix the damage caused by failed virtual education — models defended by Gov. Tony Evers and school districts cowered by teachers unions.
In a letter to Evers, Republican legislative leadership and Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, the 10 organizations write that lawmakers, “to the greatest extent possible, utilize the American Rescue Plan’s $1.5 billion in new K-12 funding to support course access for struggling students.”
The letter was signed by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, School Choice Wisconsin Action, the MacIver Institute and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, among others.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported, DPI has failed to track in real time the rate of absenteeism among virtual schools — or even how many schools continue to operate virtually more than a year after Evers ordered the state’s schools closed. One elementary school in Milwaukee couldn’t reach 25 percent of its students. Around one in three students at Milwaukee Public Schools, according to the district, failed the fall semester.
And failure rates have exploded. Nearly all of the 60 school districts responding to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin survey reported that more high school students failed a class last fall than in recent years, and most blamed the same factor: online learning.
The coalition’s letter notes that Wisconsin’s reading scores lagged the national average its racial achievement gaps consistently ranked near the widest. And that was before the pandemic.
“Our organizations are deeply concerned that COVID-19 has exacerbated the achievement gap while simultaneously lowering outcomes across the board, even for many students who once earned solid A’s,” the letter states. “More troubling, Wisconsin public school enrollment has dropped by 25,000 in a single year.”
While some of those students “simply fled” schools that locked them out of classrooms in favor of private schools offering in-person learning, many others are simply missing, the coalition writes.
The organizations recommend the following measures be taken:
- Allow parents to choose the courses that best fit the needs of their children at the school they currently attend.
- Fund after school, summer school, and other courses that meet each child’s individual needs and help them get caught up and ready to excel.
- Ensure accountability by allowing only course providers—including other traditional public, private, or public charter schools, dual enrollment courses through universities or technical colleges, or other private providers such as tutors—to receive full payment only if the student successfully completes the course.
The coalition advises against spending the federal funding — amounting to $1,850 per student and nearly 20 percent of DPI’s entire budget request — on school buildings.
“Spending these extra funds on brick-and-mortar buildings will create the wrong incentives and do little to rescue the students who are lost and left behind,” the letter asserts.
The coalition also proposes, among other ideas:
ARPA funds would be directed to schools based on 2020-21 enrollment numbers and could be used for any supplementary education services chosen by parents. Students would not need to switch to a different school to take advantage of these offerings. Funds would be “performance-based,” meaning the provider of each course would not receive full payment until the student successfully completes the course.
Any existing school (public, choice, or charter) or college and university in the state could provide Education Recovery services to other schools as long as they are offering in-person instruction to their own students. DPI would maintain a list on its website of these and additional course offerings.
But directing where the funds go is mainly out of the Legislature’s hands. Evers ensured his unilateral control of the money when he vetoed a Republican-led effort to allow the Legislature to have oversight of the ARPA funding. Their 11 bills specifying where the total $3.2 billion in COVID relief should be spent is likely to suffer the same fate.
The governor’s failure to order schools re-open to in-person learning even after pandemic experts implored states to do so caused many of the failures facing Wisconsin schools. He has been beholden to one of his key constituencies, the state’s teachers union. And school districts in Madison, Milwaukee, Racine and elsewhere have refused to stand up against them for the good of their students.
And now parents and education champions are begging Evers, the former state superintendent of education, to do the right thing.
“Our children’s education is at stake — with the difficulties of virtual learning many students lost an entire year of education.” said C.J. Szafir, President of the Institute for Reforming Government. “Wisconsin families know what’s best for their children and policymakers should work to give them the ability to choose courses that best suit their children’s needs. It’s a strong showing of support to have so many organizations united behind helping children and families.”