Two Opportunities for States to Support More Thoughtful School District Recovery Plans

Two Opportunities for States to Support More Thoughtful School District Recovery Plans

June, 2021
By Scott Palmer and Dan Gordon

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.

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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.

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