THE PROBLEM: There has been a record influx of federal spending into Wisconsin through the American Rescue Plan of 2021 and other federal COVID-19 relief measures, but it is nearly impossible for citizens, taxpayers, watchdog groups, lawmakers, or members of the media to track how (or if) that money is being spent. That means concerned citizens are unable to weed out fraud and abuse, and advocates are unable to champion the programs that are working.
In addition, the pandemic has heightened a crisis in Wisconsin concerning mental health issues among school children and young adults. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health ailments are up and in need of addressing.
POLICY SOLUTION: Assembly Bill 564 by Representative Plumer brings needed transparency to the billions that have been allocated by the federal government to Wisconsin state agencies and local public, charter, and private schools. It also allocates $100 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funds for grants to school districts, independent charter schools, and private schools for mental health programs.
1. With record amounts of federal money coming to Wisconsin, taxpayers and even state lawmakers have been left largely in the dark on how the executive branch is (or isn’t) spending the federal money.
2. AB 564 requires any state agency that is already required to submit a status update or report to the federal government on how it is spending COVID-19 relief funding to also submit the same report to the Joint Committee on Finance as well as posting the report to the agency’s website. Without this transparency, there is no way for citizens, taxpayers, watchdog groups, lawmakers, or members of the media to know if money is being spent appropriately.
3. AB 564 also requires the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to submit a report to the Joint Committee on Finance, along with posting the report on DPI’s website, detailing the federal COVID-19 relief funding that has been received by DPI, school districts, independent charter schools, and private schools, a reporting of how the moneys have been spent, and the amount of moneys that remain unspent.
4. The bill also establishes a $100 million school mental health grant program through DPI, using federal American Rescue Plan funding, for local schools, independent charter schools, and private schools to use on mental health programs.
Record levels of federal funding have poured into the state through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and other federal COVID-19 relief efforts, but there has been little to no attempt by the federal government or the executive branch in Wisconsin to ensure transparency. This lack of transparency has left taxpayers, watchdog groups, members of the media, and even lawmakers largely in the dark when it comes to knowing how, where, and even if those funds are being spent by the executive branch and other levels of government, like school districts.
AB 564 shines a light on how the executive branch and schools are spending federal COVID relief funds with common sense reporting requirements. It requires any state agency that is already required to submit a status update or compliance report to the federal government on how it is spending COVID relief funds to also submit that same report to the Joint Committee on Finance along with posting the report online where it is readily accessible. It also requires a public accounting of all federal COVID funds that have been received by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), school districts, independent charter schools, and private schools, a breakdown of how the moneys have been spent, and reporting how much of the money remains unspent.
Beyond the transparency measures in the bill, AB 564 tackles the growing mental health crisis among youth by requiring DPI to spend $100 million of the federal COVID funds it has received on mental health grants to schools. Prior to the pandemic, the mental health of youth was an area of growing concern for parents, school officials, and policymakers. Layer on top of those preexisting concerns the unknown mental health impacts of the pandemic and the increase in anxiety and depression among children and young adults, and it is clear that using federal COVID-19 relief funds for these grants is a necessary and worthwhile goal.
Policymakers should also consider what resources parents need to be able to help their children with the many mental health ailments brought on or intensified by the pandemic. For many parents, these are problems they never dealt with personally – and the grants created in AB 564 could help these parents better understand the issues their children face.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Read the testimony of Chris Reader, IRG Executive Vice President, before the Assembly Committee on Mental Health on September 21, 2021.