By CJ Szafir, Libby Sobic, and Will Flanders

COVID has upended many aspects of life in Wisconsin, not the least of which is K-12 education. Many schools were not ready to immediately transition to distance learning. School teachers are struggling to convert their lesson plans to a form that is digestible without the face-to-face interaction of the classroom. Many parents aren’t ready, either lacking the resources or time to help their children.

These issues must be dealt with as soon as possible or else we risk tens of thousands of students having their growth stunted. Although new state funding is tight due to the recession, the newly enacted CARES Act will soon allocate about $221 million to Wisconsin — via Governor Evers and LEAs — to be spent on K-12. As we describe, this represents opportunities for public policy.

With the Wisconsin legislature expected to convene soon in extraordinary session, we recommend they consider the following:

1. Assist Teachers and Schools With Online Instruction

It is vital that our school districts are prepared for distance and virtual learning. Online instruction may continue for the rest of the school year and, perhaps even into the Summer and Fall. Yet, according to a 2019–2020 survey of Wisconsin school districts, 66 school districts out of 421 have implemented virtual learning time.

One way to ensure that learning can continue is by helping teachers be better prepared for online instruction. The state of Florida provides amodel. There, teachers are being incentivized to participate in online teaching training by a $200 stipend to help prepare them during the school closures. The goal is to train about 10,000 more teachers statewide. For a much smaller state like Wisconsin, a goal of training 2,000 teachers in an online and distance learning instruction could be accomplished for a relatively small cost. Ideally, the funds would be transferred to an account of sorts so teachers could have broad discretion as to where to spend it to improve their ability to teach online classes. This could likely be fundedwith federal dollars from the CARES Act via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief.

It is likely that schools will face increased — or unexpected — costs due to online learning. As we previously wrote, “[f]or example, online educational subscriptions for students, costs to provide each student with an electronic device, materials for teachers, among others. According to a 2019–2020 survey of school districts, only 60% of Wisconsin districts have 1:1 devices for students grades 6–12.” The state can use federal dollars from the CARES Act to either defray the costs of online learning — or incentivize schools to create new online courses.

2. Give low-income parents access to funding to address immediate educational needs

As we transition (at least temporarily) to a home-learning environment, it is important that parents have the resources they need to keep their children on track. Particularly for low-income families, this could prove challenging. Such families are unlikely to be able to access to the enrichment activities that come at a cost and may not have the ability to readily access online resources provided by the school. These circumstances are similar to the summer “brain drain” that sees gaps between low-income and minority students widen over the summer relative to their peers.

One way to mitigate this problem would be to create an account for low-income parents to access that would enable them to spend public money on educational expenses. The state could provide a set amount of funding — perhaps $500 or $1000 per family — that could be used for a variety of education-related expenses, such as the purchase of a computer for completing assignments, online tutoring programs, broadband, curriculum, and textbooks.

The state could fund this from a variety of sources. For a district that see state aid reduced for failing to provide instruction as described below, for instance, a portion of the aid reduction could be redirected to families. There is also a chance that CARES Act funding could be used here, though this path is less clear.

3. Ensure Schools are Using Taxpayer Money to Continue Education

Unfortunately, some districts are having difficulty figuring out ways to conduct remote instruction. Milwaukee Public Schools, for instance, were still evaluating ways to keep learning going two weeks after schools shut down. All school districts must use taxpayer dollars to educate students during this crisis. If they are not, the dollars should either be returned to the state or, ideally, given to parents so they can use it to educate their children (see #2).

Several states have already taken steps to ensure that education continues. In Arizona, HB 2910/SB1693 mandated that districts continue to offer “general educational opportunities” to students in order to continue to receive funding. Because districts may face different challenges, the way these services are to be delivered was left up to the districts themselves, with oversight from the state Board of Education. In Texas, the Texas Educational Agency mandated that districts commit to providing instruction at home in order to have requirements such as the minimum days of attendance waived. Texas also stressed that “low-tech” solutions are vital to successful remote education in addition to online components.

Wisconsin should make sure that our school districts are working to provide instruction to their students, by whatever means possible. Following the examples of Arizona and Texas, Wisconsin lawmakers should make future state aid payments to schools contingent on schools continuing to provide full education to their students.

None of these ideas are a silver bullet, and it is likely that significant “catching up” will be needed whenever this pandemic is behind us. There are other reforms that must be considered — as we outline in our memo on CARES and explanation on increasing course access (SB 789). Now is the time for lawmakers to act.

Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

Dr. Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

CJ Szafir is the Executive Vice President of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.