By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — While Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Health Services and the Department of Public Instruction point fingers over the bureaucratic fiasco that left nearly 80,000 kids without federal meal assistance, untold numbers of children still are going without.
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, tens of thousands of students did not receive food assistance because the state failed to collect the addresses of students.
DPI told WISN-12 that more than 79,000 low-income Wisconsin students eligible for P-EBT benefits were not receiving them.
The story broke in early April, but it was a problem before that. How long before? DPI doesn’t have an answer and DHS isn’t talking to Empower Wisconsin.
“Again, this program is administered by the DHS and the DPI has been assisting with the new data collection,” DPI spokesman Chris Bucher said. “The DPI and the DHS are working to collect and update necessary information – including student addresses, which was not previously collected by the DPI or the DHS, and is required for the DHS to issue benefits.”
But the buck stops at DPI, the state agency in charge of Wisconsin’s public education system.
“It’s classic bureaucracy,” said Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield). “It’s funny, when liberals believe that social justice calls for it, they never worry about constitutional constraints … But when it comes to accountability or it’s going to upset their teachers union, it’s not their job. There’s no sense of urgency, no sense of ownership.”
Kooyenga originally brought the problem of DPI’s failure to track student absenteeism to light in a letter last month to the agency. He wanted to know how many kids simply weren’t showing up to virtual classes in Wisconsin’s schools. DPI said it could provide those answers — in December. DPI later claimed that hundreds of schools have failed to update their status on virtual learning.
“We hear all of these COVID commercials reminding us to wear our masks and social-distance. What about announcements on the importance of making sure your kids are in school?” Kooyenga said. “It is the law in Wisconsin.”
The state of Wisconsin has received more than $200 million in federal food assistance funding, part of the billions of dollars in COVID relief going to support nutrition assistance for children and families. The idea is to make sure K-12 students enrolled in the free-or-reduced lunch programs continue to receive meals while locked out of schools and stuck in virtual education.
DHS is in charge of administering the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) funding, but has said it’s up to DPI and local districts to collect the addresses of eligible students. DPI says it normally doesn’t keep track of the students in the low-income meal program; that’s the job of local school districts.
“Contact information for students is normally maintained at the local level. Prior to the pandemic, the DPI did not collect addresses for any of the students who received free or reduced-price meals supported by the National School Lunch Program at their schools,” DPI’s Bucher said in an email to Empower Wisconsin.
DHS has not returned Empower Wisconsin’s requests for comments, but it has said it is partnering with DPI to “spread the word” to families entitled to the food assistance benefits.
“DHS is reaching out to families eligible for the program through direct messaging and mailed letters to let them know how to access their funds,” the agency said in an April 2020 press release.
Except a lot of kids slipped through the cracks.
A call center set up to take questions reportedly was so overwhelmed and understaffed that it quickly shut down.
Weeks later, the agencies have yet to connect with all of the eligible families. DPI says it’s working with DHS to collect and update the information, but it did not provide an update on numbers.
“Every day, more accurate and complete information is received,” Bucher said. He added that families who have students in the schools that have yet to respond to the virtual learning survey should receive notice that they will receive benefits after their schools provide the required information.
“New notification letters will be sent and benefits will be provided by the DHS to these families in early May. These families do not need to take any action at this time,” he said.
Meanwhile, they wait.
“This is a social justice issue. This is what social injustice looks like,” Kooyenga said. “Where are these kids?”