Six Positive Reforms in the Legislature’s New Plan to Get Wisconsin Back on Track

By: Will Flanders and Kyle Koenen

This week, Republican members of the Assembly put forth a plan to get Wisconsin back to business in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there may be reasons to be reticent about passing the entire package, the bill includes a number of key provisions that warrant consideration in some form. Here, we’ll discuss six of the most interesting.

1. Allow Out-of-State Health Care Providers to Practice: As health care providers around the state struggle with staffing shortages due to COVID-19, additional steps should be taken to address this shortfall. This spring, the legislature adopted measures as part of its COVID-19 response package that temporarily relaxed credentialing requirements for certain health care professionals. This provision makes these changes permanent. For a more lasting solution, lawmakers should consider adopting universal reciprocity laws, which allow workers in all professions to move more freely between states.

2. Authorize Pharmacy Students to Administer Vaccines: As hope grows that a vaccine for COVID-19 is just weeks away, it is vital that the state set up a system that can deploy the vaccine as rapidly as possible. Rapid deployment of COVID-19 vaccines is key to getting life and the economy back to normal as quickly as possible, yet some state regulations stand as a potential roadblock to those efforts. Currently in Wisconsin, pharmacy students early in their training are not able to provide vaccine shots to Wisconsinites. This bill would allow first and second year pharmacy students to provide such shots.

3. Withhold Aid from Districts that Don’t Reopen Schools: Recent research by WILL and others has shown that school reopening decisions weren’t driven as much by local COVID-19 rates as they were by unions and local politics. The scientific evidence has become increasingly clear that it is safe to reopen schools, yet many districts still don’t offer in-person instruction. Many families have struggled to bear the cost of at-home instruction, having to forgo employment or shell out money for technology. Districts ought to be forced to weigh these concerns against the political pressure they feel from unions. This bill ensures that happens by withholding 35% of a district’s equalization aid if they refuse to offer in-person instruction by January 31st.

4. Provide Parents with Relief for Schools that Don’t Reopen: The bill also provides a portion of that funding to parents in districts that don’t reopen, as well as districts where more than 50% of the semester was virtual. WILL has long been an advocate for decoupling school funding from school buildings. In the current environment with many districts outright refusing to meet the needs of their students, it becomes even more sensible. The amount of funding is relatively small at $371. It is apparently half of the per pupil aid allocation for the 2020–21 school year. That said, any amount of funding can help families struggling to make ends meet.

5. More Freedom for the Open Enrollment Program: Many families may be seeking out alternative options at this time, be it another district that is offering in-person instruction for those in fully virtual districts or a virtual charter school that has more expertise in at-home education. One of the chief mechanisms for families to do this is the state’s open enrollment program, which allows students to enroll into other public school districts. This bill makes open enrollment even more possible for families by removing a limit on the number of districts a student can apply to, and further limiting the ability of home districts to deny students who want to enroll out. This ensures that districts, fearful of losing tax revenue from students who leave, won’t be an impediment to those who desire a different learning environment, and that students have many opportunities to get into a school that better meets their needs.

6. Audit COVID-19 Expenditures: When federal CARES Act funding was distributed to the state, Governor Evers was given near carte blanche authority to spend $2.0 billion as he saw fit, as long as expenditures could be reasonably tied to COVID-19. Under this proposal, the legislature would direct the Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct a financial audit of all state agency spending related to the pandemic. This is a prudent move to ensure this money was spent wisely, but legislators should also consider expanding the scope of an audit to include additional aspects of the state’s response to COVID-19, including the implementation of testing.

The bill has a number of other important provisions as well that deserve careful consideration. It serves as a useful guide to ensuring that 2021 is a brighter year for all of us in Wisconsin.

Flanders is the research director and Koenen is the policy director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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