The Biden administration released a new tool aimed at helping parents hold districts accountable for their use of federal COVID-19 relief funds as the 2024 spending deadline approaches.
The White House and the U.S. Department of Education jointly announced the back-to-school American Rescue Plan checklist for parents on Aug. 25. The resource, which is available on the Education Department’s website, guides parents through conversations with their school districts about local use of the funds. Districts have until September 2024 to decide how they’ll spend the money.
“I’m encouraging schools and families to reach a new level of communication and transparency together to make sure our students and educators are getting the support they need,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said during a phone briefing with reporters.
The checklist describes how the funds can be used to support student learning, address the needs of the whole child, ensure COVID-19 health and safety, and help districts engage families. Under each topic, the Education Department outlines specific strategies that serve as best practices for districts.
For example, the department says districts can use the funds to provide high-quality tutoring, expand after-school and summer learning practices, and recruit and retain school teachers, all to help with student learning. The recommendations follow the Biden administration’s National Partnership for Student Success initiative, an effort to supply 250,000 tutors and mentors to classrooms.
The department also suggests that districts use the funds to provide wraparound services through “community schools” and increase access to mental health services by hiring more school psychologists, social workers, and counselors. Earlier this year, the administration increased its funding amount for its community schools grant program, which provides funding to programs that offer wrap-around services to students.
To address the COVID-19 pandemic, the resource highlights vaccine clinics, HVAC enhancements for clean air, and free COVID-19 testing for all staff and students.
The recommendations in the checklist should serve as “a starting point” between families and school and district leaders, Cardona said.
An effort to engage more families
The back-to-school checklist supplements other Education Department efforts to improve relationships between school districts and the families they serve. In June, the department announced its National Parents and Families Engagement Council, an effort to bring parents and family leaders into conversations about education policy.
Several conservative activist groups, including the America First Legal Foundation, Fight for Schools and Families, and Parents Defending Education, filed a lawsuit against the Education Department in July. The lawsuit alleges the department violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires committee memberships to be “fairly balanced in terms of points of view represented.” The lawsuit alleges that nearly 80 percent of the leaders of the parent organizations involved in the committee donated to Biden’s campaign, leading to biased representation.
The back-to-school checklist specifically highlights family engagement as a best practice use of the federal funds, suggesting that districts hire parent coordinators to connect schools and families or use the funds to conduct home visits and other family engagement activities.
First lady Jill Biden, who joined the Aug. 25 media briefing, said there is a “no more powerful advocate for students” than their parents.
“Parents are their children’s first teachers,” said Biden, who has been an educator for 38 years and currently teaches writing classes at North Virginia Community College. “They know what their children need better than anyone.”
Highlighting ‘strong examples’ of local districts’ use of the funds
The Education Department also used the checklist to highlight school districts and state education agencies that it says are “strong examples” of how to use American Rescue Plan dollars.
One of the highlighted districts, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, allocated nearly $10 million in federal funds to a high-dosage tutoring program that identifies students based on their grades, test data, course failures, and absenteeism.
The school district partnered with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically Black university, to supply over 420 tutors, who spent more than 67,000 hours with students, according to the checklist.
“For us, high-dosage tutoring has two purposes: to address learning loss and to create a pipeline of educators,” said Whitney Oakley, the acting superintendent of the Guilford school district. “As our tutors see the impact they are making on the lives of students, some have already expressed a desire to teach in public education after they complete their studies.”
The department also highlighted the following districts and state agencies for their use of the funds:
- Arkansas Department of Education for expanding tutoring
- Iowa Department of Education for paraeducator and teacher recruitment
- Mississippi Department of Education for expanding health care access in schools
- Puerto Rico Department of Education for increasing teacher salaries
- Tennessee Department of Education for expanding teacher pipeline
- Aurora Public Schools in Colorado for expanding tutoring
- Denver Public Schools in Colorado for improving ventilation and air quality
- Detroit Public Schools in Michigan for improving facilities
- Gaston County Schools in North Carolina for expanding nursing staff
- Guilford County Schools in North Carolina for expanding tutoring
- Houston Independent School District in Texas for installing air filtration spaces
- Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky for opening student support centers
- New York City Department of Education for hiring social workers
- Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota for supporting mental health and wellness
- Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico for supporting mental health and wellness