A third round of COVID relief is on the way for Alabama’s public schools. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), a $1.9 trillion dollar federal relief package, was signed into law by President Biden on March 11th. The stimulus provides $126 billion for K-12 public schools nationally. That’s more than double the $54.3 billion received by the state from the last COVID relief package passed by Congress in December – and almost ten times as large as the $13.2 billion American schools received from the CARES Act funding passed at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Alabama’s schools can expect over $2 billion dollars from ARP, bringing total federal relief available to Alabama schools to more than $3.2 billion.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what K-12 stakeholders in Alabama can expect from this new funding.
That’s a lot of (K-12) Money
Alabama’s $2 billion dollars for K-12 education will be primarily allocated through ESSER (the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund) funds. At least 87.5% of this funding goes directly to local school districts based on the Title I formula. These funds will be focused on both addressing unfinished learning and supporting schools’ return to in-person learning. In particular, ARP stipulates that 20% of ESSER funds must be expended to directly address student learning loss. The remaining ESSER funds can be utilized at the discretion of local school districts. Allowable expenditures include:
- Equitably addressing student learning loss, focusing efforts on the unique needs of those living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, learning english, or living with a disability
- Investing in high-quality summer and after-school enrichment programs
- Expanding Mental Health services
- Repairing and improving school facilities to reduce the risk of virus transmission and exposure to other environmental health hazards
Within 30 days of receiving funding, school Districts must publicly publish a plan for safely returning to in-person schooling.
Additionally, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) can withhold up to 12.5% of the allocation to be used at ALSDE’s discretion. At least 5% of the withheld funds must be spent to address learning loss, 1% for evidence based summer enrichment programs, and 1% for evidence-based, comprehensive afterschool programs.
As a condition of receiving ESSER funds, state education agencies (e.g. the ALSDE) must continue to financially support K-12 public schools (maintenance of effort) at the same level or greater in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 as they did on the average of fiscal years 2017-2019. Similarly, state agencies and local districts may not reduce funding on a per pupil basis (maintenance of equity). Bottom line: As the Legislature prepares to pass a state education budget, they cannot reduce funding to local school districts or risk losing ESSER funds. This will not be an issue because both Governor Ivey and the Legislature have already proposed increases in state funding.
The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) recently released a detailed analysis of ARP stimulus funding levels for sixteen states, including Alabama. Additionally, the Alliance for Excellent Education prepared a one-page summary that details the education provisions of ARP.
More Funding For Broadband
The new stimulus package creates a $7.2 billion dollar Emergency Connectivity Fund nationally that goes towards funding of the federal government’s e-rate program. This program traditionally provides discounts to eligible schools and public libraries so that they receive free or largely-subsidized internet access. High-poverty schools along with rural schools receive higher discounts. Eligible schools and libraries will be able to use the funds for the purchase of Wi-FI hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices. The new law also allows schools and libraries to extend broadband service farther into their communities, reaching more households.
Targeted Funding for Special Education
ARP includes $3 billion dollars nationally in dedicated funding for individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) programs. This allocation of funding is important because it allows school districts to invest in programs that are uniquely designed to address the challenge of unfinished learning for special education students. These funds are for use in fiscal year 2021.
Other Education Funds in the Plan
Childcare & Head Start: ARP includes $39.97 billion for Child Care Stabilization as well as Child Care and Development Block Grants to help child care centers reopen as well as to provide essential workers with financial aid to secure child care. $1 billion has been allocated for Head Start.
Food Insecurity: The plan also provides $5.6 billion to maintain and expand the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides extra money on a debit-like card to families with children who are not able to access school meals. This program has been critical in fighting food insecurities throughout the pandemic.
Science Research: $100 million has also been allocated to fund education research through the Institute of Education Sciences.
The Urgency of Now
Are these three rounds of stimulus enough to help Alabama’s schools bridge the digital divide and close learning gaps? It’s truly the (multi) billion dollar question of the moment. While the ARP calls for at least 20% of the relief funds to be spent on addressing student learning loss, it’s critical that school districts make it their primary focus.
Now is the time to commit to sound, evidence-based educational policy solutions. Districts should continue to focus on investing the money in ways that extend student learning through summer and afterschool programs, meet unmet learning demands (through high dosage tutoring), and emphasize student mental and physical health.
Some of A+’s state and national partners have also provided recommendations. The Business Education Alliance of Alabama (BEA) has a new report out today. Additionally, Tennessee SCORE and the 50CAN network have provided policy recommendations.
It is also important to note that these stimulus funds are one-time federal investments. To avoid a fiscal cliff in 2024, we must continue to thoughtfully allocate state education dollars in a coherent manner that aligns with state and district efforts born out of these federal relief funds. Discussions surrounding the FY ‘22 budget began in the Senate Finance & Taxation committee today. We will closely monitor the budget process, and you can follow along with us here. As the legislative session unfolds, A+ will continue to advocate for funding and policies that ensure great schools and great outcomes for every child.