A little over two years ago, a historic pandemic spurred a once-in-a-lifetime infusion of federal funding into our education system. Following on the heels of two earlier stimulus packages, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) of 2021 provided an unprecedented $122 billion for K-12 education in an effort to reverse the devastating impact of Covid-19 on students’ learning.
This massive influx of money into a sector traditionally plagued by tight budgets presented an opportunity of unrivaled potential. The ARP offered enough funding and flexibility to give K-12 leaders a real opening to make some of their biggest, most transformative wish list items a reality.
This was a chance to not just backfill the craters created by the storm that was the pandemic, but to build a wider, smoother, altogether better road to long-term success for our students.
With just over a year to go before the ARP spending deadline, it would be a real stretch to characterize the overall investments as transformative. While there have been some bright spots, much of the money has been spent on traditional expenditures and operational costs—which can offer value, but are less likely to have an impact on students’ long-term success that lasts beyond the life of stimulus funds.
The pace of the investment has also been slow. Nearly half of the funds remain unspent, setting up what’s sure to be a mad dash to spend down the remainder by the fall of 2024. You can already predict the dueling narratives that will emerge about this investment as we head into the presidential election.
The truth is it’s hard to spend that much money in innovative ways, especially in a system that’s used to being told to stay between the lines. From the federal government down through the states, education funding usually carries with it a compliance mentality. The emphasis is on limiting people to what’s required and what’s allowable—not on inspiring them to go for what’s possible and imaginable.
To their credit, the Department of Education did not bog down this one-time investment with the same level of detailed regulations that it often applies to its regular funding. In an effort to get the money out the door and into states and communities faster, there were very few strings attached. Some important priorities, like addressing learning gaps caused by the pandemic, were elevated; but on the whole, federal leaders chose to trust the judgment of local leaders and allow maximum flexibility in how the funds were spent.
By going this route, however, something important was lost: an opportunity to drive the investments toward more clearly proven long-term solutions in areas where we desperately need them.
Tutoring is an example of a strategy that did get elevated, and for good reason given how many students fell behind during the pandemic. High-impact or “high-dosage” tutoring has a strong research base behind its effectiveness and it quickly became a major focus area for investment of ARP funds; but few school systems were able to implement it at scale with fidelity. Fortunately, philanthropy stepped in to establish a new organization to sustain these efforts over the long haul. With tutoring, the field came together to think strategically about ways to leverage ARP funds as a launch pad for longer-term solutions.
Unfortunately, we did not see that same level of intentionality around secondary and postsecondary strategies and interventions. Arguably the most important thing our high schools do is prepare young people to lead successful lives after they graduate and enter the real world. The pandemic dealt a serious blow to that mission. The data are clear that many students who are now entering our high schools are way behind where they should be. And in an era where most jobs require education or training beyond high school, it’s alarming how significantly college enrollments have dropped over the past few years, especially for traditionally underrepresented groups of students.
Addressing college and career readiness wasn’t an explicit focus of the ARP funds, but we did see some states and districts prioritize strategies that would have the longest-term impact on students and their readiness for success after high school.
Take the state of Tennessee, for example. It invested more than $500 million of its own money to leverage an initial investment of $30 million of ARP funds to launch a competitive grant program which incentivizes districts to reimagine high school, with a particular eye toward closing the preparation gap that had widened during the pandemic. The state offered meaningful incentives and sent a clear message to districts that investing in innovative solutions to better prepare high school students for college and careers should be a top priority.
And we saw Tennessee districts respond, doubling down with their own funds to accelerate this work. From the development of “microcollege” experiences for high school students to the rapid expansion of work-based learning opportunities, several districts in Tennessee are bright spots illustrating how stimulus funds could be leveraged with a core focus on students’ long-term success.
Beyond Tennessee, other districts used their stimulus funds to dramatically expand strategies that they know have long-term positive impact. Phoenix Union High School District expanded dual enrollment opportunities, recognizing that this is one of the best ways to increase college-going rates for high school students, particularly low-income students and students of color. Baltimore City Schools significantly boosted postsecondary advising capabilities and used stimulus funds to accelerate its goal of offering at least six Advanced Placement courses in every high school in the city.
Some districts also recognized the opportunity to put in place the infrastructure needed to support their long-term vision of student success. Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, for example, used their funds to develop a custom data system to help them track college and job outcomes for their graduates, enabling district leaders to better understand how well they are preparing students for life after high school so they can provide better, more proactive support before graduation.
These examples of innovation are encouraging; but they are also too few and far between.
Fortunately, there is still time to make strategic use of the remaining funds. As we enter the final year of American Rescue Plan funding, state and district leaders should look to those who used their funds to innovate in support of students’ college and workforce success for a roadmap of how we might improve opportunity across the board. Otherwise, we may end up with a lost Covid generation, with families and communities feeling the consequences for years to come.