The following is the prepared testimony of Michael Brickman, a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG), to a joint hearing by the legislature’s committees on education on Thursday regarding federal funding from COVID relief for K-12 education. Brickman spoke about IRG’s plan to fund courses for students who have been left behind due to the pandemic

Good [morning/afternoon] Committee Chairs Darling and Thiesfeldt, and members of the  committee. My name is Michael Brickman, and it is a privilege to be here today. I am a graduate of a Wisconsin public high school in the 8th Senate District and I had the honor of dedicating years of my life  working from the East Wing with many of you to ensure every child has access to a great education. Together, we made tremendous progress, but Wisconsin children have never faced a challenge like this before. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of all Wisconsinites and taken the lives of  thousands. But I want to focus specifically today on the impact on children. All have had their education disrupted in some way and too many are still not back at school five days a week. Their parents are their long-term substitute teachers—if they’re lucky enough. Meanwhile, media reports tell us that extremely high numbers of students are failing courses and many are simply missing.  

I spent most of the pandemic at the U.S. Department of Education and can tell you that this is not a Wisconsin problem, it’s a nationwide problem, but it’s not harming everyone equally. Nationwide, according to the American Enterprise Institute, one-in-four majority-Hispanic districts are fully remote, that’s true of 16% of majority-black districts, but only 2% of majority-white districts. And some states are doing better than others. The latest figures show that only about one-in-four Wisconsin districts are fully in person. In Florida and Iowa, that number is 100 percent. In fact, each of Wisconsin’s neighbors does better.

This past year has been unique in so many ways. All across the world, people recognize this undeniable fact. We’ve all had to adapt and make sacrifices. In many ways, we’ve thrown out the rules on how healthcare can be provided, allowed takeout cocktails at restaurants, and miraculously  produced multiple effective vaccines in under a year. But when it comes to education, which we all  profess to value so highly, there is no Marshall Plan, the cavalry has not come. For many children and  parents, we are simply saying, “the rules are the rules, the lift is too heavy, we cannot (or will not) make  this work and you must bear the sacrifice.” As a result, children are still unable to learn, many of their parents are unable to work. Wisconsin has seen public school enrollment drop by more than 25,000 in just one year, and that’s after state flexibilities relaxed the normal rules for counting each school’s students.  

Where are Wisconsin’s missing children? If they’re not learning, what is happening to them? Are they safe? Are they getting into trouble? Despite the best efforts of teachers and school leaders, the sad truth is that, in many cases, we really do not know. And we probably will not know until local  politics allows schools to reopen. And with a year or more of a child’s valuable education lost, what then?  

I’d like to briefly explore one idea. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will generously gift about one-and-a-half billion dollars in extra funds to Wisconsin k-12 education, on top of the hundreds  of millions in extra federal funds provided over the last year. Much of this new money will be tagged for learning loss recovery, summer school, and other efforts to make up for the educational damage students have suffered. So, what if we let parents decide how some of it is spent? First, let’s be clear, this would not be a voucher, it would not be an education savings account. Those are conversations for another time as the approach here can be much simpler. 

Over the past year, no two students have had the same experience, nor will they have the same needs as we move forward. Instead, parents—who this year know even more what would serve their children best—would be able to select from coursework and services that best meet their child’s unique  needs. The state’s 10% of these funds would be allocated to school districts, which would manage their use and provide a local match. Parents would be given a menu of eligible courses and providers, which could include other public schools (if they are open and serving their own students), colleges and  universities, and private options like tutoring that are already available to the wealthy. Once DPI vets each option, they could be made available to all students statewide. Payments would follow the students, but only after they successfully complete the program. 

The road to educational recovery will be long and difficult for this state and every other. But starting now, there is an opportunity to do things differently, embrace a bit of innovation, and show students that this time the rules will be changed, and exceptions made for their benefit. Thank you for your time. I would be happy to take any questions you may have.