Brief # 57 Education Policy
The Impact of Biden’s American Rescue Plan on Education
By Emily Carty
March 23, 2021
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, 2021, has a wide range of implications regarding the school system and, more generally, education and development of our youth population. Under the Act’s Title II (Committee on health, education, labor, and pensions), Subtitle A (Education Matters), Biden’s plan for our education system is laid out. Throughout the entirety of the act however, there are various sections that impact children or education, particularly notable is an increased child tax credit that will be extended to benefit lower-income families.
The American Rescue Plan allocates just over $122 billion ($122,774,800,000 to be precise) to carry out the laws pertaining to the section on education. The funds will be available through 2023. The law outlines how funds will be distributed and what they can be used for. Block grants for public schools will go to states to be distributed to Local Education Agencies in the manner outlined by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
There are some guidelines as to how the general block grant money needs to be spent, since its primary focus is to remedy the havoc wreaked by Covid. At least 90 percent of money distributed to states must go directly to Local Education Agencies, the public education boards within states which administer federal and state education laws and funding. At a minimum, 20 percent of funds are for addressing learning loss throughout the pandemic. Educators define learning loss as a deviation from the “normal” level of learning students demonstrate based on grade, age group, or subject year after year.
The remaining 70 to 80 percent of funds from block grants could be spent on: updating technology and educational facilities to mitigate effects of the virus, developing mental health resources for youth, designing emergency preparedness and school closure plans, professional development for educators, or supporting learners with unique needs. There are other guidelines and recommendations, but it is ultimately up to Local Education Agencies how the money will be spent. The Act’s word choice and statements denote an equity-centered approach coming from the Biden Administration — something that states can take cues from.
In addition to public school support, the Act sets aside funds for other specific purposes. One of the first provisions listed is the allocation of 800 million dollars to support the identification of and development of support programs for youth experiencing homelessness. Additionally, Emergency Assistance to Non-Public schools which “enroll a significant percentage of low-income students” will be eligible for up to 2.75 billion dollars. Non-public schools are private or independent schools which do not receive money from the government.
Higher education institutions will receive a little over 39.5 billion dollars. The money can be used for a variety of things but is aimed particularly at making higher education institutions safe to reopen as well as providing mental health support through this crisis. The act primarily aims to distribute money to public high education institutions and particularly the ones which service low-income communities and students.
Additionally, the act requires states to maintain or increase funding for schools and Local Education Agencies in order to receive funds — this is under what is called “Maintenance of Equity.” The idea is that these funds are to support the recuperation of schools and students in the wake of coronavirus, they are not replacing the money already set aside to support education.
The American Rescue Plan is a bold plan to address the effects of Covid and learning-loss on our schools and students. It also addresses long-held concerns surrounding funding for building upgrades, staffing, professional development, and support services, all with a focus on equity. The plan directly aims to reduce child poverty through the provisions related to schools as well as through child tax credits. With the new law raising the child tax credit from $2000 to $3600 per child, and extending it to more lower-income families, the Washington Post suggests it will work as “essentially a guaranteed income.”
All put together, the act provides a significant amount of money directly to states and Local Education Agencies to begin the work of reopening schools safely, implementing new learning plans to remedy a year of virtual-school, and repairing our school infrastructure. The maintenance of equity provisions are major wins for education advocates across the nation — the federal government is explicitly preventing states from cutting funding to schools because of general economic losses due to the pandemic. By providing direct money to families the Biden Administration is acknowledging the fact that educational outcomes are largely related to poverty, which has only been exacerbated throughout the pandemic. If we really care about students’ educational outcomes, we must address poverty and this is a good first step.
The federal government is not able to oversee the administration of all of these funds, especially since many will come in the form of block grants. While there are rules and recommendations, funding considerations will be largely left up to states and local educational agencies, for better or for worse. The “highest poverty” and “highest need” districts have extra protection from local budget cuts and staff cuts, however many districts are exempt from these rules — including the over 6000 districts with fewer than 1000 students. Either way, having these recommendations included in the first place will set the stage and provide guidance for all districts that wish to prioritize equity.
Critics of the education portion of the act suggest it may leave districts less flexible with their hiring practices or if an unexpected event occurs. While there certainly will be added complexities to state and district practices and teacher contract bargains, the emphasis on equitable and sustainable spending on students is greatly needed. The key here will be deliberate and intentional spending that will improve learning outcomes and focus on equity.
The American Rescue Plan Act addresses the effects of school shutdowns and increased poverty rates by putting low-income and high-need students and families first. The act leaves a lot of room for states to make major spending decisions, but it also provides guidelines and rules on what one cannot do with the money. While there is not a huge emphasis placed on what the educational outcome and goals for students are, it allows states and local education activists to call for and implement concrete, state- and local-specific plans to address equity and learning-loss in a way that makes the most sense for their community.
Children’s Defense Fund – This organization is dedicated to advancing justice for all children. They have a range of resources and programs designed to educate the nation and our government about children’s needs, and they have policy solutions and evidence-based ideas they lobby for. Check out their action page to easily text or reach out to your representatives about relevant child welfare policy issues.
The Education Trust – This group is federal and has regional chapters, it performs policy research and advocacy in all things education. Check out their advocacy pages to get informed, get resources, and find a way to reach out to your representatives.
The National Youth Law Center – A non-profit law firm specializing in low-income youth justice, NYLC represents youth interests by holding government and administrative systems accountable through legal action. Check out their detailed policy recommendations or wins around education (and other topics) and download templates to show support and send to your representatives.