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Education Department Insights on Covid Relief Spending

Three federal Covid relief packages approved in the past year are providing about $190 billion for K-12 public schools to stabilize their finances, reopen safely, and help students make up for lost instructional time. At least 90 percent of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief aid, known by the acronym ESSER, must flow to local school districts, with states allowed to reserve as much as 10 percent for their priorities. The U.S. Education Department has released to two thirds of the $122 billion reserved for education in the American Rescue Plan. Before receiving the final third, states must submit a plan by June 7 outlining how they expect to use all the federal money. FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis Jordan spoke with Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, about the process and priorities for spending the unprecedented federal funding.

The Covid relief money flowing to states and districts for education dwarfs the federal education aid they typically receive.

It's an unprecedented level of funds because the needs are so great to ensure that we're able to continue to reopen schools safely and maintain their safe operations and to address the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students.

The recently enacted American Rescue Plan requires that states use 5 percent of their total allocation—about $6 billion—on evidence-based efforts to address learning loss. It requires school districts to use 20 percent of their funding—nearly $22 billion—for that purpose. How are you defining evidence-based?

There's a spectrum of practices and strategies that counts as evidence-based. And guidance we will be issuing shortly will go into more detail on that, but it'll be consistent with the definitions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We want to help school districts and states understand the full range of options, and then how to make decisions that align the evidence with the student groups that they are serving.

How will you ensure these and other requirements are being met?

 The magnitude of the funding is one of the reasons that the department is requiring states to submit a plan for how they'll use the American Rescue Plan ESSER funds. That state plan not only addresses how the state is planning to invest the resources, but also reflects significant stakeholder input, so that we're able to make sure that we have the voices at the table of the groups, including students and families who are most impacted. States will also describe their fiscal safeguards and monitoring processes.

We include in the state plan application a description of how the state is addressing evidence-based practices in each of those three funding packages. We also ask how the state is supporting its school districts in addressing evidence-based practices for the allocation of at least 20 percent in local funds that must be used to address the impact of loss instructional time. And then, we'll also be issuing guidance shortly, providing more information about uses of funds that describes more information on evidence-based practice.

One widely embraced recovery strategy is summer learning. But states and school districts don’t have much time to get summer programs in place.

We're working closely with at least 46 states plus the District of Columbia, the Burau of Indian Education, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and others to support states and school districts and diverse teams in implementing their summer plans. It is critical that we provide support to students through learning enrichment programs this summer. States and districts have obviously been thinking about this a lot. Now, with the American Rescue Plan, they have the resources to do it and we're eager to support them in that work.

There are a lot of programs designed to promote students’ social and emotional well-being, a post-pandemic priority. But there isn’t a consensus about the best options. What’s your guidance?

This area has been top of mind for states and districts and there's a lot of great work in the field to build on. I would point to Volume 2 of the COVID Handbook, an Education Department publication that describes strategies and how we think about them, and then also the Best Practices Clearinghouse, which we just launched, which enables schools and districts and states to share some of what they view as promising practices.

Many students disappeared during the pandemic.  Some were enrolled and didn't attend, others didn’t enroll.  How do we get kids reengaged?

One of the key things is to safely reopen school buildings. That's one of the areas that we are prioritizing and working with states and districts on. We also, in the state plan application, specifically ask states to talk about the extent to which they are prioritizing students who've been disengaged and who were not able to successfully participate in remote instruction.

All three of the packages have a maintenance-of-effort requirement. What do states and districts need to do?

Simply put, it means that the resources that the federal government is making available must be used to increase support for schools and students beyond what states and districts are currently spending. Our guidance provides additional information on how to calculate that, as well as some of the factors that the department might use in considering potential waiver requests, which a number of states have raised.

The American Rescue Plan also has a maintenance-of-equity requirement. Is the concern that districts might shift existing resources away from schools serving low-income students since those schools are being targeted for federal Covid relief aid?

 That’s certainly one scenario. Another broader scenario is that as there continues to be financial insecurity and, potentially, impacts on state budgets. If there are state reductions for education, we want to ensure that the schools and districts that serve students with the greatest needs are protected.

The template for state spending plans spells out that state and local leaders should seek input from students, teachers, families, and the broader community. How do you envision that happening?

States have different ways of working with these stakeholders and ensuring that their voices are at the table. It could be roundtables, it could be other strategies, it could be inviting input through a more formal setting. We're eager to see the different ways that states and school districts engage a diverse range of stakeholders.

Does the Education Department have the power to stop states from spending the money the way they're proposing or to disapprove the plans?

Our goal is not to stop the money from going out. The money is urgently needed by schools and students. Our goal is to help ensure that there are plans in place to invest these resources. What we're doing is supporting states in describing to the public how they're planning to invest these funds. And we look forward to working with states where there are any questions, so that we can be in a position to ensure they receive the remainder of their allocation.

Before President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan in March, the December round of congressional Covid relief provided K-12 schools $54 billion in aid. Is that money also subject to the education department’s state planning process?

It's actually one of the things that we ask about in the state planning application. One of the requirements in that law is reporting after six months. We’ve included that reporting in our American Rescue Plan ESSER application to make it more streamlined for states.

[Read More: What Congressional Covid Funding Means for K-12 Education]

[Read More: Getting to Yes on Covid Relief Spending]

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