Funding for new reading law still in limbo even after Wisconsin Supreme Court decision

DPI says ruling means $50 million should be released. GOP disagrees.

Child care worker reading a book
Angenita Tanner, a child care worker who signed on with the Service Employees International Union, reads a book to pre-schoolers at her home day care center, Wednesday, July 27, 2005, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

When students return to classrooms in less than eight weeks, Wisconsin schools will be required to change the way they teach children how to learn to read. 

But the $50 million budgeted to implement the statewide literacy bill remains in limbo. 

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction officials expected the funds to be released this week by the Joint Finance Committee. 

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DPI officials believe a  6-1 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling July 5 that the GOP-controlled committee overstepped their constitutional authority was a win for their department.

In that ruling on a lawsuit filed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the court found the committee “intruded” on executive power by blocking the ability of Evers’ Department of Natural Resources to acquire land for conservation using funds that had already been earmarked by the full Legislature.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a clear message to the Legislature that now is the time to refocus our energy on the needs of kids,” State Superintendent Jill Underly said after the decision. “The Joint Finance Committee should immediately release the $50 million we already agreed to spend.”

But the ruling does not clearly favor DPI, said Miriam Seifter, a UW-Madison law professor and co-director of the State Democracy Research Initiative. 

“The decision provides support for DPI’s argument, but doesn’t definitively resolve that case,” Seifter said.

The Supreme Court ruling focused on the Republican-controlled budget committee’s blockage of conservation projects initiated by Evers through what’s known as the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. 

Seifter said the decision was significant for the separation of powers and operation of government in Wisconsin. But the issue between DPI and the GOP is slightly different, Seifter said. 

Lawsuits filed in Dane County over reading bill money

Last summer a bipartisan literacy bill was approved that will shift students to phonics-based reading instruction for 4-year-old kindergarten through third grade beginning this fall. 

When the reading bill was approved, the Legislature approved a separate, nearly $50 million appropriations bill for implementation. That money would help school districts pay for the new curricula needed to change their reading programs, and for training for teachers who need to put the new rules into practice.

The disagreements began over how that money would be used, and who would decide how to use it.

Wisconsin allows its governors to use partial vetoes on appropriations bills.

Evers’ use of that power in February, prompted a lawsuit in April from Legislative Republicans asking the $50 million be withheld from DPI. 

Evers and DPI then filed a counterclaim saying without the money, implementing the new law in time for the 2024-25 school year will be impossible.

Seifter said in this case, the Supreme Court opinion gives footing to DPI for the constitutional argument. 

“Because, again, a legislative committee appears to be controlling the expenditure of appropriated funds — but it doesn’t directly control due the different facts and procedures at issue: the funding here went to JCF rather than an agency, and the parties dispute how to understand what sort of appropriation has been made and to which entity,” she said.

DPI still fighting for $50 million dollars

This week, Underly sent a letter to Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, expressing frustration the money has not been released. 

“Despite the JCF’s and legislative leadership’s failure to act, the DPI continues to work in good faith to implement all components of this statute,” Underly wrote. “But as the DPI has told you repeatedly, the long delay in releasing these funds is now putting full implementation of this statute at risk. Schools are well into preparations for the fall semester, and teachers are already being asked to take classes, learn new skills, and prepare new curricula.”

Tom McCarthy, deputy superintendent, filed a declaration to the Dane County lawsuit, saying DPI has been covering the costs to implement the new reading law, but the department needs to $50 million to continue. 

“The (Supreme Court) ruling is a message to the legislature, that type of behavior, that sort of we’re going to require you to do all the things with the string attached, and then pull the rug back when an agency has acted in good faith to implement the law is not constitutional,” McCarthy said. “The court is now saying that is not a legal means to do partnership and work together.” 

Born and Marklein did not respond to requests for comment from WPR. Their attorney, Ryan Walsh, with Madison law firm Eimer Stahl, released the following statement. 

“Neither the Department of Instruction’s letter nor the declaration filed in Dane County refer to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent decision or suggest that this is a ‘win’ for DPI,” Walsh said. “The holding of that decision does not apply to the lawsuit pending in Dane County. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent decision concerns a different function of the Joint Committee on Finance, one that is not at issue in the Dane County lawsuit.”