By Amanda Menas
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, students and entire school communities were forced to face extraordinary hardships. Existing inequities that disproportionately impacted communities of color were exacerbated, and added to challenges with employment, food security, and access to technology.
Educators have an unprecedented opportunity to create the public schools all our students deserve. With the historic investments of the American Rescue Plan Act, the nation’s largest investment in public schools ever, now is the time for educators to lead and work with parents and other allies to ensure these historic resources bring more equitable and just conditions for all of our students. The ARP is the third round of federal pandemic relief funding, part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds.
Nationally, nearly $190 billion in federal emergency aid was provided to states in support of public elementary and secondary education, or about $3,700 per student. When disbursing funds, states must consult with educators and their unions and integrate suggestions into their final plan, ensuring that educators have a seat at the table when decisions are made about our classrooms and communities. Our efforts at the bargaining table and advocacy directed to state and local elected officials can ensure that these resources are directed toward smaller class sizes, increased planning time, improved safety measures, professional development, and more. These steps will work to best serve our students and school communities as we safely return to classrooms this fall.
Here are seven governors who are allocating ARP funding the right way:
As a lifelong educator, Gov. Tony Evers has been advocating for the use of ARP funding for K-12 education since March. In calling a special session to focus on education funding in July 2021, Evers asked legislators to increase funding for K-12 schools, special education, and higher education by over $500 million. The GOP-led state budget, which passed during the regular session, was $750 million less than the governor’s proposal. Funding from Evers, coupled with the once-in-a-lifetime funding from the federal government, allows our students, educators, and school communities to put their best foot forward and create the world-class schools they deserve.
Educators have advocated throughout the pandemic for increased investment in our schools as the most direct way to recover from the pandemic. With 1:1 matching funding from the state, Gov. Northam allocated ARP funding to schools across Virginia with the intent to improve infrastructure in K-12 schools, specifically modernizing HVAC and other air filtration systems to keep students and school staff safe.
Creating just, equitable schools was the top priority for educators in New Jersey when advocating for the distribution of ARP funding this year. Throughout the term of the funding, schools will be able to invest in activities to address the unique needs of low-income students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth. Investments will also be made to address the social, emotional, and academic toll of the pandemic and provide after school programming.
Gov. Walz has already begun using flexible ARP dollars for programming to support the mental health of students, families, educators, and school communities. The flexible education spending makes up only $132 million of the total $1.3 billion in ESSER funds allocated to Minnesota. These investments worked in tandem with statewide budgets which included a 6% increase in education funding, and prioritize the recruitment and retention of educators of color. Walz’s historic education budget included $1.2 billion directly to classrooms over the next four years.
Despite significant delays by state Republicans who stood in opposition to Gov. Whitmer’s prioritization of students and families, $4.4 billion was eventually allocated to help school communities recover from the pandemic. The federal and state funding will help ensure students receive the education they deserve, through access to school-based mental health experts and tutors who will help address emotional stresses and academic gaps caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. Funds were also used to ensure adequate food for students and families who rely on schools for nutrition, expand one-to-one technology provisions for remote learning, and purchase PPE.
Gov. Laura Kelly has been working to protect students, educators, and families throughout the pandemic. Not only has she been proactive around her education budget, she has also beat back voucher threats throughout the spring legislative session. ARP funding will help Kansas students with language and literacy skills, and prioritize social-emotional learning. A total of $277 million will go to K-12 schools with the rest of the funding allocated to the state.
School districts with greater populations of low-income families will be prioritized under Gov. Brad Little’s plan for ARP spending in the next two years, with the goals of retaining educators and maintaining equity across the state’s education system. Much of the funding will specifically target learning loss, with additional allocations for summer school and after school enrichment programs.