Guest Post: Two Ways for States to Support More Thoughtful School District Recovery Plans

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Guest Post: Two Ways for States to Support More Thoughtful School District Recovery Plans

This blog post is reposted with permission of EducationCounsel. AASA was pleased to partner with our Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium (facilitated by EducationCounsel) on a joint letter to USED regarding two concerns with the ARP LEA recovery plan timeline and approach to continuous improvement. You can access the original blog post here.

"In public school districts across the nation we see the familiar June images of high school seniors celebrating, teachers grading projects and final exams, and superintendents…drafting plans to spend billions of new dollars?!?

Yes, strategic planning is ramping up just as the school year is winding down. To help districts meet this critical moment, there are two small but important things state education agencies (SEAs) can do in their soon-to-be-submitted American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) plans. These opportunities arise from recent clarifications by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) about how SEAs and local education agencies (LEAs) can approach figuring out how best to use new federal resources to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the big new pot of ARP funds.

  1. USED has clarified that SEAs have the discretion to establish their own deadlines for LEAs to submit ARP plans, so long as their timeline is “reasonable.” Importantly, a reasonable timeline can be more than 90 days after LEAs’ receipt of ARP funding.
  2. USED also clarified that LEAs may periodically review and revise these plans through a SEA-designed and -managed process. 

Together, these clarifications allow SEAs’ plans to include a more reasonable timeline for LEA plans and to establish an expectation and process for periodic review, learning, and continuous improvement of those plans over time. Even with SEA plans due to USED on June 7, there is time to adjust LEA plan timelines. Additionally, many states will likely be submitting some or all of their plans after next week, and a state could submit a revised plan or amendment (before or after receiving USED approval).

The remainder of this post provides more details about the planning challenge facing school districts and how states can leverage the recent clarifications from USED to help their districts tackle it:

The Challenge

Given all of the challenges created by the pandemic, our public school students, staff, families, and communities need their school districts to develop recovery plans that both meet immediate needs and help make important shifts to address long standing inequities and “build back better.” But it takes significant time and effort to develop a high-quality multi-year strategic plan that advances excellence and equity for each and every student, both as a matter of best practices and according to requirements in ARP itself. Such a plan must be rooted in a particular community’s needs and assets and address the holistic needs of all students. It must be informed by what evidence shows is most likely to work for whom and under what circumstances. A wide variety of stakeholders must have multiple opportunities to provide meaningful input and inform decisions in ongoing ways.

Under the best of circumstances, this type of planning would pose a big challenge for any school district. Needless to say, these are not the best of circumstances. Districts are still managing through the widespread disruption from the global pandemic; launching unprecedented summer engagement, support, and recovery efforts; planning for another unique school year ahead; and continuing to navigate changing information and challenging realities.

The Clarifications

As noted above, under ARP, states have the authority to set reasonable timelines for district plans and to establish processes that encourage continuous improvement. (For more about why these two clarifications are so important for districts to plan well, see this joint letter by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium in response to USED’s original ARP interim final requirements (IFR).)

LEA Deadlines: USED has further clarified that SEAs have the discretion to establish their own deadlines for their LEAs to submit ESSER use of funds plans so long as the timelines are “reasonable.” Importantly, a reasonable timeline can be more than 90 days after receipt of ARP funding.

  • USED’s IFR reflects this, requiring only that SEAs require LEA ARP plans to be submitted “on a reasonable timeline determined by the SEA.” In the commentary for that rule and in USED’s SEA plan template (page 13), however, USED noted that the timeline “should be within no later than 90 days after receiving its ARP ESSER allocation.” This has raised some questions regarding state authority to set timelines that may extend beyond 90 days (or from when the 90 days would even begin).
  • Last week, however, USED twice clarified that the only rule is what is in the IFR itself – the SEA’s timeline must be reasonable. On 5/26, the Department published a FAQ (A-4 on page 14) that omitted any reference to a 90-day deadline while affirming that the timeline is “determined by the SEA.” Then, in a 5/27 “Office Hours” presentation (slide 21), USED reiterated its suggestion of a 90-day timeline, but noted that ultimately “this decision is left to each SEA.”

Accordingly, references to a 90-day timeline must be taken as a non-binding suggestion (“should”) and not a requirement (“must”). SEAs can set an earlier or a later deadline, taking into account their own contexts and their determination of what is a reasonable amount of time for their LEAs to meaningfully engage with stakeholders and develop a thoughtful, multi-year plan that makes strategic and equitable use of ARP funds to meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. (Note there is a shorter timeline required by ARP for LEAs’ to submit plans on return to in-person instruction, which is not affected by these clarifications.)

Continuous Improvement: USED also clarified that LEAs may periodically review and revise these ARP ESSER plans and that SEAs have authority to design their amendment process.

  • The IFR specifically requires periodic review and improvement for the return to in-person instruction plans, but it did not explicitly address the need for continuously improving the LEA use of funds plans.
  • Yet, in the same 5/27 “Office Hours” presentation (slide 22), USED noted: “As with ARP ESSER State Plans, the Department believes that ARP ESSER LEA use of funds plans are living documents. It is the Department’s expectation that these plans may need to be reviewed and revised periodically.”
  • Further, “SEAs have discretion to determine the amendment process for their LEAs as long as the amended plans continue to meet statutory and regulatory requirements for such plans.” States can design processes that maintain ARP’s guardrails (e.g., using evidence-based approaches to meet students’ holistic needs) while avoiding onerous procedures that might discourage continuous improvement.

Given all the challenges facing districts and the importance of developing thoughtful ARP plans, we encourage SEAS to maximize their further clarified authority and flexibility. Doing so will provide LEAs with the time they need to develop thoughtful and equitable recovery plans, as well as prepare to adjust those plans in response to new information, data, and feedback."

The Advocate June 2021: Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of Education

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The Advocate June 2021: Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of Education

Each month, the AASA policy and advocacy team writes an article that is shared with our state association executive directors, which they can run in their state newsletters as a way to build a direct link between AASA and our affiliates as well as AASA advocacy and our superintendents. The article is called The Advocate, and here is the June 2021 edition.

Just before the Memorial Day weekend, the Biden administration released its Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of Education. We knew to expect a big increase in the overall top-line funding level for USED based on the discretionary budget released by the Administration in April. The proposal includes a record increase for USED of $29.8 billion (41%) over the FY 2022 level, and big increases for education programs in Health and Human Services (HHS). Some of our top takeaways:

  • LOTS of New Programs: Some of the biggest funding increases are for new programs. While we are pleased to see President hold true to his push for increased funding for Title I, we are following this proposal closely because detail in this budget indicates that the $20 billion increase for Title I is for a new Equity Grant, not the existing state grant program. Another new program of note? $1 billion for a School-Based Health Professionals program, an initial down payment on a 10-year campaign to double the number of counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals in schools.
  • Outside of these new programs, the remaining increases are concentrated in a handful of programs. The biggest winners in the discretionary side of the budget? Special education, with IDEA seeing a $3.1 billion increase; Pell Grants, with a $3 billion increase; Community Schools, with a $413 million increase; and career and technical education, with a $128 million increase, among others.
  • Lots of Level Funding: In spite of an unprecedented increase in total funding, funding levels for a number of discretionary USED programs—including Title IV-A and most of the Title I programs—remain frozen, with no proposed increase.
  • Of particular importance to AASA, the Administration proposes a $2.7 billion increase for IDEA. This aligns with the increased IDEA funding that was allotted in the American Rescue Plan. We support this increase as it would allow districts to not have to initially worry about IDEA maintenance of effort requirements since the funding would be level for two years.
  • The proposal is also recommending a major increase in Title III grants for ELLs with a proposed increase of $917 million from $797 million in FY21.
  • The proposal provides a $5 million increase to the Rural Education Achievement Program.
  • The proposal would continue funding the DC voucher program at the same level as the prior Administration.

In terms of annual appropriations process, the next step lies within Congress, and we wait to see the extent to which House and Senate Democrats use the Biden proposal as the starting point for their FY22 work, or instead move in a different direction. As a reminder, FY22 starts on October 1, and these federal dollars would be in schools for the 2022-23 school year. FY22 is the first year in over a decade where federal funding is not bound by spending caps in the Budget Control Act. 


Call-to-Action: Schools Belong in Upcoming Infrastructure Package

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Call-to-Action: Schools Belong in Upcoming Infrastructure Package

Negotiations on an infrastructure package are rapidly progressing in the Senate, as last week Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion counterproposal to the recently released $1.7 trillion scaled-back infrastructure proposal from the Biden-Harris administration. The Republican proposal does not contain funding for school construction, remediating lead in schools or electrifying school buses while the Democratic proposals do.

In light of the possibility that schools could be left out of the forthcoming infrastructure proposal, AASA needs your help to ensure that public schools receive the funding they need to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for all students. To join us in advocating for public schools to be included in the forthcoming infrastructure package, please follow the directions below. 

Action Steps: 

  1. See if your Senators support S.96, the Rebuild and Reopen America Schools Act (RRASA). You can access a list of cosponsors by clicking here. If they are not on the list, then ask them to support public school infrastructure needs by cosponsoring the bill. If they are already a cosponsor of the legislation, then thank those who have signed on in support and urge them to tell leadership that they must include Rebuild America’s Schools Act in the nation’s infrastructure package and keep advocating for public school facilities infrastructure funding. 
  2. If you prefer to connect with your senators via phone, you can either (1) lookup their numbers located on your senators’ websites, or (2) call the Capitol Switchboard operator at (202) 224-3121, so they can directly connect you with your Senate office. We have created a brief message you can leave with your senators in this document.
  3. Alternatively, if you prefer to contact your congressional member via email, here is a template your school district or association can edit and send to advocate for public schools. 

We need all-hands-on-deck to ensure schools are not left out from the upcoming infrastructure proposal. Infrastructure is a non-partisan issue on the local level, and our students' and communities' needs should not become a partisan compromise in the upcoming negotiation. As always, we are grateful for your continued support and look forward to getting RRASA across the finish line!