MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin Republicans decided Wednesday to use federal aid to reward schools that offer in-person instruction, saying science supports putting kids back in class.
"Students learn better in school," Republican Rep. Mark Born, a Joint Committee on Finance co-chair, told FOX6.
Republican argue their constituents need their children in school so they can go to work. They point to recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, and President Joe Biden that children need to be in school.
"The data from school suggests that there's very little transmission that is happening within the schools, especially when there's masking and distancing occurring, and that when there are transmissions in the schools, it is because they've brought been brought in from the community and because they are breaches of masking and distancing," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director.
GOP lawmakers have also cited Wisconsin’s declining COVID-19 case rate.
The state Department of Public Instruction had planned to distribute $65 million in federal pandemic aid across 172 districts and two charter schools to offset aid going to poorer districts. However, the Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Finance stepped in and voted on a party-line vote of 11-4 to divvy it out based on the number of hours of in-person instruction offered. Districts that offer more hours will receive more dollars. This vote is all it will take to put the Republican plan into effect.
"The right thing is getting kids back in school," Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Saukville Republican, said before the vote. "COVID numbers are cratering. If not now, when?"
Committee Democrats criticized the move, saying it punishes districts that want to remain virtual and forces them to compete with districts that go in-person for money.
"It is absolutely the wrong decision for this body to take away or punish local decision-making," Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, who attended the committee meeting virtually, shouted into his computer screen. "If you don't like the decision, run for school board. Don't micro-manage their decisions from Madison."
Goyke spoke to FOX6 after the committee vote. "It shouldn’t be the fault of the school district that the conditions locally are not safe to reopen," he said. "Some communities have spikes of COVID; others have not. These decision-makers are choosing between, or have to choose between public safety and public health and the dollars on the table from legislative Republicans in Madison."
Republicans rejected the notion they were punishing anyone, saying they were simply providing an incentive to return to in-person learning.
"I get the spin. I get the politics. That's what we do here," said Born. "(But) this is for the folks who are doing the right thing to educate our kids in the classroom."
"It’s just focused on making it a priority to get kids back in school and using some of this federal funding to support the costs that come with having kids in school because we know there’s extra costs for cleaning and things to operate our schools safely," added Born.
But, Goyke said school should not have to choose between health and federal funding. "What happens in a week, or five weeks or ten weeks, if there’s a spike in COVID and the safe thing to do is to restrict the hours of in-person instruction. Under this plan, making that decision, while maybe it’s in the best public health interests, will have negative financial consequences on the school district."
Republicans insisted the state must return to in-person instruction.
"Being out of school is not mentally healthy and academically (kids) are going backwards," Sen. Mary Felzkowski said. "We're hearing very loudly from our constituency that children need to be in school."
The $65 million comes from federal COVID-19 relief money. The state has a say on that amount of money, while another $617 million will go directly to Wisconsin schools, using federal forumals, outside of the legislature's purview.