Wisconsin Examiner

DPI Disagrees With Legislature Over Literacy Program Implementation

Law was signed last July, but parties at odds on implementation.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - May 3rd, 2024 09:59 am
Books. (Creative Commons Zero - CC0)

Books. (Creative Commons Zero – CC0)

Last July, Gov. Tony Evers signed into law a sweeping bill to remake how Wisconsin teaches reading. Nine months later, several roadblocks exist ahead of the new literacy programs the law promised as lawmakers, the administration and the Department of Public Instruction quarrel over how to implement them.

The 2023-25 state budget allocated $50 million for the new programs and curriculum materials for  Wisconsin schools. But Superintendent Jill Underly has told Republican lawmakers that DPI can’t spend the money because the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee hasn’t released it.

Evers signed Wisconsin Act 20 in July after threatening to veto the measure, and after the Republican authors agreed to changes sought by DPI. The law requires schools to provide science-based reading instruction and lays out the creation of new literacy programs. A second law, Wisconsin Act 100, creates a “mechanism” for the state’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) to deploy money to support the programs.

The current conflict over the new reading programs largely centers on Act 100. When Evers signed the bill he used a partial veto to remove language that he said overly complicated the allocation of the funding and would have provided per-pupil increases to private choice and independent charter schools. Evers said he wanted to give DPI flexibility in implementing the new programs. Republican lawmakers sued April 16, charging that Act 100 isn’t an appropriations law and that Evers lacked the authority to use his partial veto power.

The Republican legislators said in the suit that they “can’t be assured the money will be specifically spent on literacy programs created in Act 20.”

Their lawsuit demands preserving “the status quo” until the court rules, and calls on the court to bar DPI from spending the money and taking any other actions “as if the partially vetoed version of Act 100 has the force of law.”

Last week, however, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) wrote to DPI, urging the department to move forward on the literacy programs, including hiring a director of the new Office of Literacy.

Evers’ veto and Republicans’ lawsuit should “have no effect on DPI’s ability to take the first steps in implementing these critical literacy initiatives,” LeMahieu said in a statement. “I am confident that the court will rule that Governor Evers’ veto is illegal. In the meantime, DPI should take action to ensure that the literacy initiatives approved by bipartisan majorities of the Legislature and signed into law by the governor are not unnecessarily delayed.”

Underly wrote back, telling LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos that while the department has “not yet formulated a viewpoint on the Constitutional issues” raised in the lawsuit yet, most of the money — $49,672,600 — hasn’t been approved for release.

“Therefore, contrary to the assertion in your letter, we do not yet have the ability to expend funds for other required activities,” Underly wrote. “As time passes, it will be increasingly difficult to meet the requirements of the law.”

Currently, DPI only has approval for $327,400 of the $50 million to support the Director of the Office of Literacy. The budget committee approved that funding and the position in December 2023.

Underly said that the DPI is already working to hire for the position, but the lawsuit could potentially cause issues.

“The dispute around Act 100 and your request for an injunction could not only have an impact on our legal authority to hire, it has the more practical effect of causing concern to any potential candidate for the position,” she wrote.

Underly added that the department will discuss potential risks with a candidate once an offer for the job is made.

DPI asked for the rest of the funds in early March, with $25 million going to  grants for schools to buy approved reading curricula, $15 million for professional development and pupil assessments, about $9 million for literacy coaches and $662,700 to cover the director position for an additional three years.

“I must repeat, however, that the director position, while critical for the department’s ability to implement Act 20, does not change the fact that [the Joint Finance Committee] is sitting on over $49 million which is intended for Wisconsin schools and students,” Underly wrote in her letter to LeMahieu and Vos.

She also said there is “no need to suggest we will use these funds inappropriately, and we simply cannot move forward until the JCF, under your direction, releases the already-appropriated funds.”

DPI, lawmakers at odds over funding for reading programs was originally published by Wisconsin Examiner.

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