August 2nd, 2021

Analysis: States Show Some Oversight for Educational Equity in Developing State Plans

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has enacted emergency relief funding to states and local governments to reopen schools safely and invest in both students’  academic and social-emotional recovery. While there are certain requirements that each state and local education agency must adhere to when distributing the federal funds, there is significant flexibility around how state and local agencies can spend the money. 

In order to receive the final installment of funds, one-third of the total allocation from American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed in March 2021, each state must outline its needs and priorities for spending in an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) plan which adheres to the federal guidelines. The deadline for states to submit their plans to ED was June 7 and there are currently 42 submitted state plans with 17 approved. 

Each plan must include a description of how states incorporated stakeholder input in their spending decisions, how money is distributed to the local level, and how states will meet the mandated conditions of funding. There is a total of $122 billion remaining of the APR ESSER funding and each state is required to allocate specific amounts to areas including lost learning time, after-school programs, and summer enrichment programs. In sum, this is a lot of money and NCLD is pleased that this process provided an opportunity for states and districts to examine their priorities and be transparent in what they plan to spend funds on. 

What were our overall impressions of states’ plans?

After analyzing the available state plans, NCLD found most plans, overall, to be vague and lacking in wanted details about where and how funds will be targeted. While many states list accelerating learning and supporting the social-emotional needs of their students as priorities, they lack a clear road map for how they would employ funds to address these areas. Many states, as expected, are funneling money to districts which leaves local officials with a lot of decision-making power. While districts can and should make decisions that support their own students’ needs, we question the capacity that State Education Agencies have in providing the necessary support or technical assistance to meet the demand. When we scanned plans for specific ways in which funds would be used to promote educational equity, especially for students with disabilities, we also noticed a lot of ambiguity. To be clear, ESSER funds can be used to fund initiatives that support students with disabilities so states do not have to rely on IDEA funds. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) highlighted that the pandemic has exacerbated disparities for students with disabilities, students of color, English learners, and LGBTQ+ students. From this, we know that there is more that states and districts need to do to address widening educational gaps and support students who have the greatest educational needs—many of them from historically marginalized and underserved groups.

What would we have liked to see differently? 

Targeted Priorities for Students with Disabilities from All States

In our analysis of states’ plans, several states fell short in identifying the specific needs of students with disabilities, despite being asked by ED to list 2-3 priorities for each subgroup of students. In their submitted plans, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, and Iowa did not explicitly state what the impact of COVID-19 has been on underserved students, including students with disabilities. Making a statement such as “the priorities for each of the subgroups are the same as the priorities for the entire state” demonstrates that there was not a clear analysis of the available data to determine what students with disabilities need or how funding can be targeted. We do know that the ED is undergoing an iterative process to review and work with states to approve their plans and we urge ED to push states to better identify the needs of specific subgroups of students and specific ways in which they will address them. 

Better Stakeholder Engagement

NCLD also feels discouraged by the lack of thorough, genuine stakeholder engagement sought out by some states when developing their spending plans, evidenced by a vague and incomplete description of the required stakeholder consultation process. Meaningful consultation with those who will be most affected by the plans, including students, families, educators and school staff, stakeholders representing interests of children with disabilities, and other underserved students is crucial for ensuring equity and many states did not achieve that. On the other hand, states like Michigan, New Hampshire, and New York described consultation with a variety of stakeholder groups, including Special Education Directors, Disability Rights organizations, and Special Education Advisory Councils. We recognize the constraints that states face in developing robust systems for stakeholder communication in a short window of time and thus we encourage this engagement process for all states to be ongoing rather than a ‘check the box’ to meet ED’s requirements. State ESSER plans should be living documents through 2024 and there is an opportunity for state education agencies to continue to engage with families, schools, and other community groups to see how efforts to recover from the pandemic are going at the local level. 

More Emphasis on Family and Community Engagement

Third, we hoped to see more emphasis on investing in family and community engagement. Remote and blended learning formats have prompted schools to shift resources to equip families with the knowledge and tools to support their students at home, but have also left many families feeling disconnected. We hoped to see states highlighting inclusive communication strategies and platforms as a focus area, but at least 20% of states made no mention of family or community engagement strategies in their plans. Perhaps this is an area that we will see districts highlight in their plans, but they may need an extra push from advocates to ensure this. 

What were the more optimistic state priorities?

Despite the many vague plans, some states had promising elements in their plans for addressing the needs of all students and for students with disabilities. While these were not found in all states’ plans, we encourage highlighting these examples in advocacy efforts.

Social-Emotional Learning and Wellness for Students and Staff

There was a noted emphasis on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), with SEL or mental health training and resources listed as a top priority in about 70% of states. Several states are establishing professional development for SEL for teachers and staff. An emphasis on protecting and elevating the mental health of students, along with teachers and staff, was a common priority for many states. Our recent surveys of teachers showed that 58% of teachers felt burnt out while teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the challenges in meeting students’ needs. A focus on teacher wellness is needed and will inevitably yield positive results for students, teachers, and parents.

Improving Pathways for Special Education Licensure 

Many states recognized the importance of special education teacher retention and creating pathways for general education teachers and other personnel to earn a special education certification. States including Wyoming, Utah, Tennessee, Hawaii, Arkansas, and Washington all are funding further teacher development or creating pathways for teachers to earn additional credentials. Special education teacher shortages were already a challenge prior to the pandemic, so allocating funds to increasing special education teacher retention and development is crucial. 

Addressing Disproportionate Impact for Students with Disabilities

Some states, in their plans, have recognized the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on students with disabilities and have highlighted ways they plan to invest funds to benefit students with disabilities. For example, Oregon plans to put APR ESSER funds towards special education programs if IDEA funding is inadequate for their strategies to accomplish their specific priorities for students with disabilities. Hawaii is investing COVID-19 Impact services provided to students to supplement current IEP services and delivered beyond the school day in a variety of formats (i.e. in-person, homogenous small group, before or after school, tutoring, and online learning). Washington is investing in inclusionary practices, including the training and implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Assistive Technology (AT), and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to support students with disabilities’ access and progress in the general education curriculum. Nebraska and New Jersey are using ESSER funds to update monitoring protocols employed to specifically address the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on certain groups of students, including students with disabilities. Lastly, some states plan to invest in improving data systems and screening tools, such as Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS), so schools can address unfinished learning and identify students at risk. It is our hope that states will support districts in using data contained in statewide MTSS/early warning data systems and that all data is disaggregated by subgroups. 

Recognizing the Challenges of Special Education Evaluations 

School closures have made it increasingly challenging to conduct evaluations for special education services. NCLD has recommended that states and local districts account for the necessary attention on backlogged evaluations and complex challenges in differentiating disability from unfinished learning and effects of trauma. Though just a small handful of states (i.e. Arkansas, Illinois, Massachusetts) have recognized a backlog or potential future increase in special education evaluations or concerns about discriminatory identification (i.e. Illinois), we hope that these comments will spur states to improve capacity for accurate evaluations by investing in school psychologists and other tools to address the present, complex challenges. 

What now? 

There is an immediate opportunity for advocates to engage with their districts as they develop their plans. It is evident from many states’ plans that they are leaving decisions on initiatives to accelerate learning or family and community support and engagement to districts. For all students and especially students with learning and attention issues, we need to meet the moment and ensure that funds are directed towards strategies that will most benefit students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. Here are a few steps to take to improve educational equity.

  1. Review your state’s plan. Which priorities or initiatives do you like? What do you wish you would have seen? Highlight these points in any communication with your local district. 
  2. Review your district’s plan, if available. The timeline for districts to submit their plans to their state agency varies by state, but many are in the development stage. Seek to determine if your district’s plan has been created and when it will be submitted to the state education agency. 
  3. Highlight priorities or programs that you wish to see. Consider what ways the district can accelerate learning, invest in inclusive and culturally responsive social-emotional learning, or meaningful family support and engagement. NCLD has developed the following resources that can support you in providing input to your local district. 

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