Go With the Plan: The American Rescue Plan Act and K-12 Education

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When the pandemic started in March of 2020, the American education system was pitched into crisis mode. Many schools stumbled into summer with little to no live instruction (face-to-face or virtual) and many students without access to a device or reliable internet. Teachers grew frustrated and exhausted. Students became stressed and—in many cases—unengaged. And school infrastructures were pushed to the breaking point.
The American Rescue Plan Act to the rescue!
This historic, $1.9 trillion piece of legislation is providing a crucial windfall to state departments of education and school districts: with over $120 billion education dollars earmarked for those most impacted, including lower socioeconomic and minority populations. 
And while the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act (signed into law in March 2020) provided a down payment for schools and higher education institutions, it proved no match for the unprecedented challenges for education. The American Rescue Plan Act (“ARP”), however, provides $123 billion in new, flexible funds for school districts that they can spend over the next three-and-a-half school years — the largest-ever one-time federal investment in K-12 education. 

Generation (Homework) Gap

According to the Pew Research Center, the “homework gap” refers to school-age children lacking the connectivity they need to complete schoolwork at home. This has disproportionately impacted the learning of Black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities and English language learners.  
The ARP includes $7.172 billion to address the homework gap through the existing E-rate program. These funds can be used specifically to purchase devices, hotspots, modems, routers as well as Internet access services for K-12 students and teachers who are unconnected in their homes.
Another priority of the American Rescue Plan Act is learning loss. Early evidence points to severe student learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in long-term impacts on students' education. The term “learning loss,” as defined in The Glossary of Education Reform, “refers to any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.”
Of the $122.774 billion dollars going to K-12 schools, about $110 billion is actually going to the districts themselves, and 20% or about $22 billion is provided to ensure that K-12 educators and districts address any loss in learning in subject matter and make up for it as quickly as possible. 
According to the McKinsey Report Mind the Gap, school systems need to “create a step change in student learning if we are to catch up on what has been lost through this pandemic.” In regards to the ARP, districts must address learning loss through:

Implementation: The implementation of evidence-based programs such as summer learning, extended day, comprehensive after school programs or extended school year programs. McKinsey & Company suggests “Acceleration Academies” and high-intensity tutoring as two examples for evidence-based programs to help students recover from learning loss due to COVID-19.

Interventions: Ensuring that such interventions respond to students’ academic social emotional needs and address the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on disadvantaged student groups, homeless students and students in foster care. 
While various education stakeholders have different perspectives on the term learning loss, most everyone agrees that extra care will be needed to help all students recover from the negative impacts of the pandemic.   

Separate But Equal

The American Rescue Plan Act makes sure that the most disadvantaged students are going to benefit from these funds. ARP money is flowing to states and school districts based on a Title 1 poverty formula ensuring that those districts and states with the greatest number of low-income students get the most amount of money. Additionally, sprinkled throughout the uses of funds, are continual injunctions by Congress to make sure disadvantaged students, homeless students, and students in foster care are allowed to receive education on par with their peers.
States must maintain support for K-12 and higher education fiscal years 2022 and 2023 at the same levels of support they provided on average in fiscal years 2017 through 2019. They are not permitted to reduce State funding FY22 or FY23 to any high-poverty school districts based on previous years, and—once the school districts receive the money—they are also enjoined not to reduce per-pupil spending at any high-poverty school.

Barrel of Funds

While the typical woes surrounding education have tended to be around funding, now—with the American Rescue Plan Act—schools and district have the funds to reimagine modern learning to accelerate recovery from months of lost learning opportunities. 
And thankfully, state and local education agencies have broad discretion over how they use their ARP funds—including the purchase of technology to mitigate learning loss and close achievement gaps—and will more than likely be reflecting on a number of issues, including:
  • Do your students, educators, and faculty have the necessary equipment to maintain virtual learning? Hybrid learning?
  • Is your school or district planning summer learning and supplemental afterschool programs, including providing classroom instruction or online learning during the summer?
  • How are you planning to meet the needs of low-income students, children with disabilities, English language learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care?
And the answers that these reflective questions solicit may very well decide the future of education—as well as the lives of students, parents, and educators— for years to come.

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