From the Blog

ESSER and ARP: Possibility Just Took Center Stage

by David Ruff 

In March 2020, the world watched in amazement as teachers, students, and families reacted to the shut down in our schools due to the pandemic and creatively figured out ways to shift to a world of virtual learning—often in locations with few resources and limited experiences. Police brutality based on racism impacted the emotional safety of all of our children further; still, teachers, students, and families found the inner strength to support deeper learning. While a tremendous struggle, conversations focused on getting to the next day.

The start of the school year saw less chaos (our schools were still under duress, but tremendous efforts had started to create powerful pathways for learning despite these problems), and conversations shifted from getting through the day to imagining a new learning world: one no longer tied to recognizing only learning that takes place in a school during the school day; one that promotes student agency and choice; one that ensures learning for each student while staying focused on real student concerns.

As the pandemic has carried on, educators, students, and parents alike have become tired and exhausted. Incredible efforts by teachers are overlooked by public anxiety and demands to get students back in the classroom. Students struggle to maintain their learning while facing a lack of deep relationships. Parents are juggling the demands of work or looking for work while juggling the needs of their children. And our conversations outlining initial moments of resilience that led to amazing moments of creativity have narrowed to a desire for previous normalcy.

Into this current reality comes the possibilities associated with the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) act.

Let me be clear: I recognize the hardships of the last year, the real losses, and the emotional pains—and all of this points to the reality that the learning systems we once knew will no longer suffice moving ahead. Not only was our educational system pre-Covid fundamentally inequitable, but it was clearly not ready for the pandemic crisis. Further, all indications for our collective future demonstrate that similar serious unrest will continue to hamper student learning. Simply put, even if we wanted to return to schooling as we knew it a year ago, we can’t, for the world has changed. Looking ahead, we can either pine hopelessly for the past or join hands hopefully to create an equitable and promising future for all of our children.

ESSER by the Numbers

ESSER funding is an amazing opportunity. Initially, the enormity of $122 billion entirely flew over my head. Yes, this is a lot, but really, how much will get down to our classrooms? Let me try to explain. ARP gave many Americans $1,400. We can grasp this concept of funding. ESSER, within the ARP funding, averages out to $2,279 per student in Maine, to $2,903 per student in Rhode Island, and $3,239 per student in Vermont. In 2019, the entire state of Connecticut received $131 million in Title I funding from the federal government; ESSER provides the state with $995 million. That’s approximately 7.5 times as much funding. These dollars can be used to both address the immediate needs created by Covid-19 and to redesign student learning for a new world. These are significant dollars that are directly in the hands of school districts and communities to address learning needs of students.

Generally speaking, funding for education in America is figured on what we need to continue our current system. Any changes we might want to make—including planning, piloting, refining, retraining, preparation, or purchasing new resources—is undertaken on a shoestring budget. Speaking strictly from a financial perspective, our schools normally are not funded well enough to engage in a thoughtful and organized redesign process. They are funded and designed to maintain the status quo.

ESSER funding changes this reality.

The Opportunity (and Obligation) Before Us

With these dollars—even recognizing that much of this funding will need to be spent on previously ignored infrastructure concerns including better air circulation, stronger technology components, and safe physical spaces—we can create an opportunity to fundamentally redesign learning. Worried about providing professional development for teachers to redesign their instructional practices? Covered. Worried about having curriculum materials that are necessary with new learning approaches and reflective of the identities, experiences, and diversity of all students? Covered. Worried about affording time and resources to reach out and better engage families in the learning of their students? Covered. Essentially, due to the significant flexibility provided in the law (which does require districts to maintain an average of their previous three fiscal years), the imaginations of teachers, students, and families have been set free.

GSP defines educational equity as ensuring just outcomes for each student, raising marginalized voices, and challenging the imbalance of power and privilege currently in play across the country and, unfortunately, within our schools. For far too long, our educational system, which was created to support deeper learning for each student, has struggled under a design that ranks and sorts students, providing deep and engaging learning for some while largely ignoring others. We have not created rich and fair outcomes for each student, we have not raised marginalized voices of our students and families, and we have lived uneasily with an imbalance of power and privilege that rests largely on race and economic disparity. Our schools and communities now have the opportunity to redesign learning and attend to the inequities we have created through thoughtful use of these funds.

I know we all are tired. I know we long for the days before Covid-19 when we could meet friends in warm embraces, when we could gather in public areas, and when we were not separated from loved ones struggling with Covid-19. I, too, am tired, and I too long for so many of these pleasures we took for granted prior to the pandemic. But I also want to recognize that our lives before the pandemic were not fair for each of us, and such inequity undermines all of our wellbeing. Our communities cannot be healthy places to live for any of us as long as we continue to accept educational systems that fail to provide learning and opportunity for each student and their family.

So at our time of exhaustion, this opportunity has come to our communities. The easiest path would be to simply backfill our educational budgets and falsely hope that our previously flawed educational systems will miraculously change into effective and equitable systems. Yes, it would be the easiest path, but it does not lead to success; it leads only to further inequity. Instead, we have an opportunity to redesign learning for each student and their family. I believe we can do this. I believe that we have the collective capacity to follow a more difficult but ultimately more profound path to rethink learning in each of our communities. We have an obligation and an opportunity to consider our past and create a new future.

It is time to do so.

Understanding ESSER and ARP

Make no mistake: This is the largest-ever one-time federal investment in education—an unparalleled opportunity to not only reopen, but also to reimagine our schools. Learn more about ESSER and ARP by clicking the button below.