A year into a pandemic that has, despite the herculean efforts of many, seen a drastic reduction in student learning in America’s schools, the federal government has come to the proverbial rescue with a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, of which $123 billion specifically targeted for elementary and secondary school relief, nearly double the amount of the first two stimulus packages combined. On its face, this monumental investment is long overdue, but as ever, the devil is in the details.
The $123 billion is not a blank check. It is loaded with contingencies, first among them being that all funds must either be spent or earmarked by September, 2024, ostensibly to ensure that funds are used not for future projects, but to address the negative impacts of the COVID pandemic.
There is also a heavy dose of pseudo-federalism with the distribution of these funds between states and local school districts. Of the $123 billion, only $12.2 billion is going to State Education Agencies (SEAs) with Local Education Agencies receiving the lion’s share of $109.8 billion. While LEAs are likely rejoicing at this enormous influx of much needed funds, they are required to use 20% to address so-called “instructional loss” and for constructing and publicly presenting plans for re-opening in-person instruction.
It should be noted that states will not receive equal funds, but will receive dollar amounts based, at least in part, upon their student populations. Highly populous states like New York will receive just under $9 billion, while less populous states like North Dakota will get closer to $306 million.
The money going to states comes with significant guiding principles. The American Rescue Plan encourages SEAs to “undertake bold initiatives” like investing in early literacy programs and expanding internet access. SEAs are encouraged to incentivize LEAs to align their district specific strategies with state strategies by creating grant competitions to prioritize state approved plans and by creating innovation funds to support district level problem solving. Lastly, SEAs are encouraged to remember the families they serve by providing some funds directly to families to spend on state-approved services and by creating effective communication tools to provide families with up to date information.
In addition to the guiding principles, the ARP suggests one time financial bonuses to districts that ensure at least 80% of students sit for their state’s assessment in Spring 2021, removing financial barriers to participating in SAT/ACT, AP/IB exams, massive expansions in literary and math tutoring and summer school offerings, investments in high-quality instructional materials and creating loan forgiveness programs or other programs to attract and retain teachers.
Now that the American Rescue Plan has been signed into law and funds are set to be distributed, it is incumbent upon students, families, teachers, and education advocates to hold their local districts and state officials accountable for ensuring funds are used in the best interest of students. This can be done by advocating–and agitating—for the following:
A regularly updated, comprehensive and easy to understand plan on how American Rescue Plan funds will be used posted on all SEA/LEA websites with translation capabilities.
An evidence-based plan for assessing the impact of the COVID pandemic on student learning at both the SEA and LEA levels.
A digital equity plan to ensure immediate access and capability for all families. While LEAs handle the distribution and maintenance of laptops, hotspots and all resources, SEAs can ensure internet access is universal by either creating independent WiFi networks, or engaging local internet providers to ensure affordable and quality access for all families.
Adequate funding allocation to ensure a best-practices school counselor to student ratio of 250:1
Remember, a plan is only as good as its execution. Too often, district and state education leaders are handed funds and left unaccountable for results. The only way this will change is for those of us on the ground to come together and insist our states and districts show us transparent, equitable and effective plans for how ARP funds will be spent.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...