The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, passed by Congress in March 2021, makes an additional $122 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding available for states. Often called ARP ESSER or ESSER III, this is the third round of federal education funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The US Department of Education (DOE) gave states access to two-thirds of their ARP ESSER allocation in April 2021. However, to receive the final one-third of their ARP ESSER funds, states were required to submit a plan detailing how they will use the funding by June 7, 2021. Each district, or local educational agency (LEA), that receives ARP ESSER funding must submit a plan that describes how they will use the funding to their state education agency (SEA).
For more than a year, district leaders have stayed focused on dealing with the ever-changing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and day-to-day challenges. However, as they prepare ARP ESSER plans to submit to their states’ LEAs, they should take time to step back, zoom out, and carefully consider how they will spend their funds. Unlike ESSER I and II funds, ARP ESSER funds come with some spending percentage requirements. However, districts still have a great deal of flexibility in determining how they will use their funding. This significant influx of funding provides a unique opportunity for leaders to carefully consider what they need to help students recover and thrive for years to come.
5 Questions to Consider as You Develop Your ARP Spending Plan
1. Does the plan consider and balance long-term needs with the critical needs of the moment?
Effective plans start with understanding critical needs. District leaders must have clarity on their most pressing needs, but they should also pause to consider future needs. As noted in the legislation and recent documents released by the DOE, districts must “engage in meaningful consultation” with local stakeholders in developing their plans for spending ARP ESSER funds. Input from stakeholders—such as teachers, school leaders, families, students, district administrators, and other school staff—is critical to determining needs and the impact of the funds.
Districts have until September 30, 2024 to allocate ARP ESSER funds. But even with the long time frame for spending, they should keep sustainability top of mind as they construct their plans so they don’t, for example, start a new program with ESSER, only to find out three years in the future that they don’t have the means to keep the program going. With thoughtful planning, districts can use their ARP ESSER funds to not only tackle current needs, but also to address long-term goals.
2. Does the plan address inequalities and help those students most impacted by the pandemic?
One requirement for ARP ESSER fund plans is abundantly clear: They must address the needs of students who have been most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as those students who are often underserved, including “students from low-income families, students of color, English Learners, children with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, children and youth in foster care, and migratory students” (FAQ, p. 13).
Meeting the needs of these students is so important, the ARP Act requires districts to set aside at least 20 percent of their ARP ESSER funds to “address the academic impact of lost instructional time through the implementation of evidence-based interventions.” The 20 percent is a minimum amount required, and districts can spend more. As educators develop their plans, they should carefully consider how they can use ARP ESSER funding to significantly address student needs and inequalities. State applications vary, but most will ask for details about which schools and student groups will be served by ARP ESSER funding.
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3. Does your ARP ESSER plan include evidence-based solutions?
In addition to requiring districts to reserve at least 20 percent of their ARP ESSER funding to address unfinished learning, the ARP mandates that the activities, strategies, or interventions implemented with this set-aside requirement must be evidence based. The ARP uses the definition of “evidence based” from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which means the strategy demonstrates a “statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes” based on four levels of evidence: Strong, Moderate, Promising, or Demonstrates a Rationale.
The goal of the evidence-based requirement is to help ensure the strategies implemented are likely to positively impact students. SEAs may ask districts to describe the specific evidence-based strategies they plan to use with funding in their ARP ESSER plans.
Examples of evidence-based strategies in the legislation include summer learning/enrichment, extended day/year, after-school programming, and “innovative approaches to providing instruction to accelerate learning.” We know about access to grade-level content, and the ARP encourages education leaders to find “innovative”—yet evidence-based—ways to do this. Looking for inspiration? You can explore the different evidence-based strategies that states have proposed to accelerate learning by reading their publicly available plans on the DOE’s website.
4. Does your plan include high-quality, valid, and reliable assessments to help educators meet student needs?
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As detailed on page 12 of the ESSER FAQ , districts can use “high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable to accurately assess students’ academic progress and assist educators in meeting students’ academic needs, including through differentiating instruction,” as part of their efforts to address the impact of lost instructional time.
Assessments such as Diagnostics can help educators in three ways by determining students’ areas of proficiency and challenge, providing differentiated instruction, and monitoring progress toward goals. Having navigated the challenges of schooling and lost instructional time this past year, educators need data about student needs in order to work effectively and efficiently in the 2021–2022 school year. For this reason, high-quality assessments should be considered an essential component of your district’s ARP ESSER plan.
5. How can your ESSER plan support your educators and build their capacity?
ARP ESSER funding can be spent on hiring and professional development—two areas that will be critical to the success of districts’ initiatives for the upcoming school year and beyond.
Addressing the academic impact of lost instruction time may necessitate more teachers or the addition of different staff roles. ARP ESSER funding can be used to hire teachers and aides to “provide additional time for student learning, enrichment, and support” (FAQ, p. 29). As you determine your district’s critical needs, be sure to keep asking if you should hire additional educators or staff to fulfill program goals.
Districts can also spend their ARP ESSER funding on professional development and educator support. The ARP ESSER FAQ specifically mentions several key training topics, including:
- Research-based strategies to meet students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs
- Supports for students most impacted by the loss of instructional time, including English Learners and students with disabilities
- Culturally responsive approaches that leverage the assets of English Learners
- Scientifically based academic and behavior interventions, including scientifically based literacy instruction
- Strategies to accelerate learning without remediation or tracking
- Mental health literacy for educators and staff
Consider how your ARP ESSER plan can support your educators in helping all students be emotionally and socially prepared for school and ready to access grade-level content.
Flexibility with a Focus
In short, districts have flexibility as to how they use their ARP ESSER funds, but it’s flexibility with a focus. Education leaders will need to ensure their planning process includes components that the ARP Act, ESSER Guidance, and FAQ specifically highlight (e.g., conducting a needs assessment and seeking stakeholder input) and that their ARP ESSER funding plan focuses on strategies that help students most impacted by the pandemic and includes evidence-based solutions, high-quality assessments, educator professional development, and other tools to increase equity and learning.
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