MADISON – Republicans in the Legislature directed nearly $66 million in federal aid to schools that hold in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic as they argued it’s better for students to learn from teachers in a traditional classroom.
The Legislature’s budget committee approved the plan 11-4 Wednesday. All Republicans supported it and all Democrats opposed it.
While the committee has a say in how about $69 million in federal assistance can be spent, far more — $617.5 million — will automatically flow to Wisconsin school districts regardless of whether they are holding in-person education, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Congress made the extra funding available to schools under recent legislation meant to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. Ninety percent of the funding goes straight to schools, but state officials have leeway in deciding how to spend the remaining 10%.
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Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee agreed Wednesday to divvy up $65.5 million of funds the state controls among school districts that are holding in-person classes.
“The bottom line is our kids need to be in school,” said Sen. Howard Marklein, a Republican from Spring Green and a co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee.
Rep. Evan Goyke, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said lawmakers should leave it to local officials to decide when it’s safe to resume in-person classes. School officials may resist suspending in-person class if they have a spike in COVID-19 cases in their areas because it will hurt their bottom lines, he said.
“It will cost them money if they go virtual,” he said.
The amount of help schools would receive will depend on how many students they have and how much of their time is spent in the classroom. The aid would go to schools that are holding all their classes in person, as well as those that are conducting some classes in person and some virtually.
No further action is needed by lawmakers. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could try to block it, but Republicans have the votes to ultimately put their plan into effect.
Larry Miller, president of the Milwaukee School Board, called the action a “political game” and said it would not influence his stance to postpone reopening until at least April, when more staff are expected to be vaccinated.
Milwaukee Public Schools is set to receive $225 million in direct aid through the federal program, but Miller said he was concerned about how other districts might be affected.
“It’s very concerning to play these politics,” he said. “This puts a number of districts in a difficult position. Rather than having the most important thing be health and safety, it’s playing a game.”
Rory Linnane of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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