Alabama Can’t Fumble the Ball on $3 Billion of COVID School Relief

By Corinn O’Brien, VP of Policy, A+ Education Partnership

This piece was originally published in Yellowhammer News on May 17, 2022.

Imagine this: Someone gives you a million dollars to use as you see fit. A year later, you have spent every penny on shiny new objects that you hoped would make your life better. But just like the majority of lottery winners, you are not more successful because you did not make investments that would actually improve the quality of your life.

Now imagine $3 billion – billion with a “B” – dollars. To support COVID-19 recovery, Alabama schools are receiving $3.14 billion from the federal government. In some districts, this is over $10,000 per student, with the most money going to districts that need the most support. This is a once-in-a-lifetime investment in our schools. Think about the possible impact this amount of money could have. Do you know how your local school district is spending this money and if it is having an impact on Alabama’s last-in-the-nation achievement?

As the statewide advocate for great schools for every child, A+ Education Partnership believes it’s important that Alabama takes full advantage of this moonshot moment to drastically improve outcomes for our students. This is especially critical for students of color and from low-income families who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and were already behind before it began.i

Only 22% of Alabama students were proficient in math on the 2021 ACAP state assessment, including only 11% of economically-disadvantaged students and 7% of black students. Only 32% of economically-disadvantaged students were reading on grade-level.

If we fumble this opportunity and aren’t able to demonstrate its impact on student success, many will feel like we wasted it. And, our students deserve every opportunity to not only recover but flourish. If we want our state leaders to continue investing money in schools, we need to show them that we are using it effectively. That is why our team has created the A+ COVID Spending Tracker, an easy-to-use online tool that helps you see how every school district in Alabama is spending their share of the funds.

This initiative has four big goals:

  1. Increase transparency of how COVID money is being spent. Our tracker will provide an easy-to-use overview of both state and local district planned spending, which will allow all stakeholders, such as families, teachers, students, and community members, a chance to see how this money is being spent.
  2.  Promote effective strategies that accelerate student learning. In addition to the tracker, we have created an A+ Advocate Toolkit for students, families, educators, and local advocates to learn more about effective strategies from across the country that will help students catch up and how to advocate for them in their school districts.
  3. Encourage district leaders to use data to track their spending’s impact. It’s critical for state and district leaders to continually ask if the way that they are investing COVID federal funds is having a measurable, positive impact on student outcomes. A+ will track student outcomes over the next three school years to see if investments are making an impact for the most important stakeholders: students.
  4. Ensure that students and families are part of an ongoing feedback and decision-making process. The U.S. Department of Education has required the State Department of Education and local school districts to have “meaningful consultation with all of the stakeholder groups” to spend this money. This means students, families, and community members all need to be included in the decision-making. School districts are also required to reevaluate their ESSER plan every 6 months until September 2024. That means you still have time to get involved and have your voice heard.

As the third school year disrupted by COVID-19 comes to an end, we are entering an important and brief window of opportunity. This summer is an excellent time for all stakeholders- including students, families, educators, principals and district leaders- to step back and reflect on if we are spending this unprecedented $3.14 billion well.

Are we going to take advantage of this moment for our students and their futures?

Corinn O’Brien is VP of Policy for A+ Education Partnership

A+ Education Partnership is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to create great schools for every child in Alabama.