This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, signed into law on March 11, provided a third round of COVID-relief funding ($122 billion) to states and school districts to support the reopening of K-12 instruction and the continuity of in-person educational services. The bill also included $3 billion for special education, $2.75 billion to support non-public schools and funding for homeless children and youth.
The Texas Education Agency was allocated $12.4 billion under the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, sometimes referred to as ESSER III.
Since March 2020, over $193 billion has been allocated to K-12 schools through three versions of ESSER funds (in March 2020, December 2020 and March 2021). Institutions of higher education received over $76 billion and an additional $10 billion was provided to governors to spend on K-12 or higher education. By comparison, the annual funding appropriated to the U.S. Department of Education is about $75 billion.
Provisions in the newest round of emergency K-12 educational funding included a requirement that state education departments disburse funds to local school districts in a “more timely manner,” targeting within 60 days. Each local district is required to reserve at least 20% of its allocation to address learning loss through interventions such as summer learning and extended day/after-school programs, with the assurance that the programs address the academic, social and emotional needs of student subgroups disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This would include students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students with inadequate access to technology.
A Maintenance of Effort requirement remains on a state level, but extends through fiscal year 2023, and a new Maintenance of Equity requirement will be assessed on the state and local levels to ensure that any cuts to state funding in FY2022 and FY2023 for “high-need” school districts are less than the overall reduction in state funding across all districts in the state, on a per-student basis.
Notably, the Biden administration flexed a bit of muscle in the latest round of federal relief funds provided to school districts by requiring them to publish their plans for “the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services” within 30 days of receiving American Rescue Plan funds. Districts, including those in Texas, would be able to use existing plans to satisfy this requirement, but those without in-person plans would be on the clock to reopen.
A separate pool of money in the American Rescue Plan set aside for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides for expanded COVID-19 testing in schools. Coupled with President Joe Biden’s prioritization and expanded access of vaccinations for adults, an aggressive push has been made for public schools to reopen safely and quickly.
While districts in Texas have been required to offer in-person instruction throughout the 2020-21 school year, at the end of March, a federal survey found that only about half of all public schools nationwide were open for full-time, in-person instruction. The U.S. Department of Education expects this number to continue to rise through the end of the school year, and it will encourage this through updated guidance and best-practices documents, webinars and other outreach.
The new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, is standing firm on the need to conduct standardized testing this spring, but allowing modifications, such as shortened tests, online exams or extending testing dates. The Biden administration has not wavered in its position to assess the learning loss that has occurred this past year — to inform and more effectively plan for the 2021-22 school year.
This article is provided by Van Scoyoc Associates, TCTA’s retained lobby firm in Washington, D.C.