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California, Florida, and Other States Waiting on Green Light for Their COVID Relief Plans

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 14, 2021 4 min read
Image shows an illustration of money providing relief against coronavirus.
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More than half a year after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law and provided tens of billions of dollars to public schools, a handful of states have yet to receive federal approval for how they’ll use the money to address the fallout from the pandemic.

States received two-thirds of the money last spring shortly after the relief package became law in March. But in order to receive their proportionate share of the remaining one-third of $122 billion in funding for state and local education agencies, they had to submit detailed plans by early June to the U.S. Department of Education explaining how they are using and plan to use the COVID-19 relief.

The department has approved state plans at a relatively steady clip, including in the past week. On Oct. 14, it approved the plans from Maryland, Nebraska, and Virginia, while just under a week before that, the department signed off on the Michigan and Wyoming plans. That’s left the following states without formal approval, according to the department’s website: California, Colorado, Florida, Mississippi, Vermont, Washington state, and Wisconsin. Puerto Rico has also yet to get the green light.

Although states must receive the go-ahead from the department before getting one-third of the money, their approved plans apply to their entire award under the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. Local districts’ share of the money is based on their Title I aid for disadvantaged students under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal K-12 law.

The combined funding that the seven states and Puerto Rico are waiting on is approximately $10.5 billion. That’s well over twice the size of the initial $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant competition for states, which Congress approved as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 towards the tail end of the Great Recession.

California, which has the highest K-12 enrollment in the nation, has the largest outstanding share at just over $5 billion.

States have focused on strategies like tutoring, extended learning time, and mental health support systems in their descriptions of how they want to use American Rescue Plan funding. (Finding qualified tutors in the current environment has proven difficult for schools, however.) The rescue package provides state and local K-12 officials with significant flexibility in how they use the money.

See how much federal COVID-19 relief individual school districts received here.

Perhaps the most interesting recent development with respect to these plans is linked to the last state to submit its blueprint.

Florida made headlines recently for not submitting its American Rescue Plan proposal to the department, prompting a public rebuke from acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Ian Rosenblum. Florida officials responded that districts had not signaled a need for additional resources to meet their plans for addressing the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan funding not already provided to the state is roughly $2.3 billion.

Shortly after several news stories about this issue, Florida did submit its plan on Oct. 6. Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran told U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that the state’s summative assessments from last spring “were used methodically to inform the proposed initiatives,” along with feedback from policymakers, parents, and others to inform how it planned to use the money.

However, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, announced last month that the state will stop administering those state tests, the Florida Standards Assessment, next year. The governor said this move will cut down on the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests.

A spokesperson for the Mississippi education department, Jean Cook, said the state received follow-up questions about its proposal from federal officials in September. “We are addressing those questions and expect to resubmit our plan this week,” Cook wrote in an Oct. 13 email.

At least a few states waiting for approval submitted their plans in late summer due to requirements that didn’t come from the Biden administration.

A Vermont law that among other things required the state education department to submit its American Rescue Plan blueprint to state lawmakers for review meant Vermont didn’t file its plan with the Biden administration until early September, said Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the state education department. (Federal guidance says state legislatures cannot limit how school districts use their share of American Rescue Plan aid.)

Colorado, meanwhile, sent in its plan Aug. 31 and is responding to requests for more information from the Biden administration.

Washington state resubmitted its plan last week after getting federal feedback and is confident that it will get approved. And Wisconsin is responding to a request for more information, according to the education agencies for those two states.

California did not provide details about the status of its plan in response to a request for comment.

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