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Public school libraries will see record high investment next year from Wisconsin fund

The Common School Fund payment is 25 percent larger than the previous record

Kindergarteners read books at their desks during class.
In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, Campbell Hill Elementary kindergarten students work on reading skills in Renton, Wash. Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

Public school libraries across Wisconsin will see their highest-ever funding levels next year from their share of a dedicated statewide fund.

Districts will get $65 million total from Wisconsin’s Common School Fund, state officials announced Monday. That’s a 25 percent increase compared to the fund’s $52 million disbursement in 2023, a previous record high.

“What an incredible investment this is in our schools in Wisconsin,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who sits on a board that manages the fund. “This is not something that can be passed off as a one-time increase based on market fluctuations.”

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Districts can spend the money on library materials ranging from books to computers to Wi-Fi hot spots. For more than 90 percent of Wisconsin schools, those dollars are the sole funding source for libraries, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“Educators in most districts tell me it’s the only funding the school library receives and, without the funds, they fear their libraries may close,” said Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, who leads the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a union representing educators including teachers and library media specialists. “Wisconsin public school educators celebrate today’s announcement for the record setting investment and the support it signals to parents and teachers.”

Wisconsin’s Board of Public Land Commissioners oversees the Common School Fund, which was created more than a century ago using proceeds from the sale of public lands. Wisconsin’s Constitution requires that the money is used to support public schools.

The fund is furnished by fines, fees, forfeitures, unclaimed property, as well as interest from state loans. Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski, a member of the Board of Public Land Commissioners, said earnings from the fund have increased in recent years after a 2015 state law expanded the board’s authority to diversify its investments.

During a news conference Monday, State Superintendent Jill Underly said libraries are more important than ever.

“At this moment in our history, we need this gift, these spaces to engage with new ideas and our history,” she said, before referencing a small group of neo-Nazis who marched in downtown Madison on Saturday. “We need it in the face of hate, and increased threats and attempts at silencing. When we saw neo-Nazis on the street of the city this weekend, it was a manifestation of hate and fear and this disgusting extremism can only grow in spaces of ignorance.”

Underly also expressed support for the free exchange of ideas amid a nationwide surge in attempts to ban or restrict access to certain titles in publicly-funded libraries.

“When we see the current increases and attempts at censorship, and attacks of disinformation against school libraries, we should be very, very worried,” Underly said. “Censorship is suppression. It’s an attempt to control, and it is an anathema to the exploration and engagement we find in school libraries.”