A portion of the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funds is set to tackle the learning crisis that has emerged during the pandemic. Of the $1.7 billion allocated to the American Rescue Plan, about $129 billion will go to K-12 education, with Minnesota schools set to receive $1.3 billion.
Data from school districts across Minnesota show that students, especially students of color, are falling behind at alarming rates during the pandemic. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is required to spend some of the funds on addressing learning loss, through enrichment — i.e. learning activities beyond the school day, including after-school programs — and summer learning.
While most of the funds must be distributed directly to school districts according to a federal formula, states can use part of the money with some discretion. The National Association of Elementary School Principals explains that, “After subgranting the 90 percent to districts, state education agencies (SEAs) must set aside an additional 5 percent to address learning loss, 1 percent for evidence-based afterschool programs, and 1 percent for evidence-based summer enrichment programs. This leaves SEAs with 2.5 percent for other state activities and .5 percent for administration.” Currently, MDE is awaiting approval from the Legislative Advisory Commission before allocating the funds for different educational purposes.
Wendy Hatch, assistant commissioner for MDE’s Office of External Relations, said that the department is doing outreach to stakeholders to get a sense of community needs.
The federal government mandates that the initial 90 percent be allocated according to Title 1 eligibility, which is determined by the percentage of students who come from low-income families. Throughout the pandemic, MDE has received funds from the federal CARES Act through programs called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and the Governors Emergency Education Relief that are directed to states. The ESSER funds have been distributed based on criteria that factor in economic needs. For schools to be eligible for most of those funds, the district’s poverty rate must be above 2 percent. Districts with higher poverty rates are eligible for additional funding.
“The pandemic has really put our students in a tough spot and it’s been really difficult, particularly for our students of color and Indigenous students,” Hatch said. “And so we will all be looking at what is best for their community and how to help our students recover from this pandemic, both with learning loss, with mental health support for next year and beyond.”
Hatch says this new round of federal dollars has some different requirements from the previous COVID relief fund that passed in December, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Of the flexible funds in that act, a majority was allocated to summer programming, followed by school-age care and youth programming.
As state officials consider their spending options, they’re getting input from experts and activists.
Some worry that the funds may not be allocated in an optimal way to better serve the students who have fallen the furthest behind. Michael Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, says the funds should be used with a “strong equity lens” as the pandemic has widened the education gap with the creation of learning pods and other advantages for children from higher socioeconomic brackets.
“They should really target the students with the greatest needs, the schools with the least amount of resources, the schools with the teachers with less experience and those tend to be the schools that are the most diverse,” Rodriguez said.
The lack of a social setting has dramatically reduced access to learning for many children of color and children of front-line workers, he said.
“The ability for us to respond to the social component of learning is really important for students of color, for English learners, for special ed students, because we know that learning is a social activity. And when you take the social part out,” Rodriguez said, “we should use the additional resources to recreate the social components of learning, as well as greater attention to social and emotional learning itself.”
Josh Crosson, the executive director of Ed Allies, said, “We want these dollars to be used directly for the equitable distribution of high-quality education. Our major focus should be what can we be doing differently to accelerate learning now rather than how do we just put more money into current systems.”
In late March, Ed Allies, along with several prominent education nonprofits and advocacy organizations including Voices for Racial Justice, Educators for an Excellent Minnesota and Uplift Minnesota, sent a letter to Education Commissioner Heather Mueller highlighting their requests for how the money should be spent — stating and stressing the need to serve students who have been historical underserved.
“We believe MDE can and should set a new bar for education equity in Minnesota schools, using federal funds not only to accelerate learning but to address pre-existing needs and barriers.”