The Trickle Down Effect of COVID-19 Relief for English Learners

Blog Post
March 18, 2021

On March 11, 2021 President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) —the third coronavirus relief package passed since the pandemic started— which included $123 billion relief funding for K-12 public schools. Combined with the previous two stimulus packages, the K-12 education system will receive an additional $190 billion one-time federal funds compared to the $55 billion it usually receives in a typical year.

ARP education funding will be disbursed to states through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), just like the previous two iterations (ESSER I and II). The ESSER allocates funding to state education agencies (SEAs) using the federal Title I formula which is based on the total number of low-income students enrolled in a given state. States, in turn, are responsible for distributing funding to school districts based on their proportional enrollment of low-income students. This means that COVID-relief funding will differ from school to school, district to district, state to state, but since English learners (ELs) are overrepresented in high-poverty schools, this formula will inevitably direct more to schools serving students with these intersecting characteristics.

COVID relief funding holds a lot of promise for schools’ ability to provide ELs with much needed supports. By now, it’s clear that remote learning has had a disproportionate impact on ELs’ learning opportunities as evidenced by higher absence rates, greater academic regression/stagnation, and more failing grades. As a result, each iteration of relief has continually identified ELs as a subgroup that should be intentionally targeted with stimulus funds (see Table 1 for allowable uses specific to ELs). However, with great funding comes great responsibility to ensure funding is reaching the students and communities it is intended to serve.

Tracking these stimulus funds warrants attention because even in the best of times, it can be difficult to see how education funding is used. In California, for example, despite the extra weight attributed to ELs through the Local Control Funding Formula, district funding plans have been found to lack differential support for ELs and it’s often difficult to determine whether/how instructional supports reached ELs at the classroom level. And now with COVID-relief, the stakes are much higher.

The law includes a few guidelines for states and districts to follow, but for the most part there is immense flexibility in how funding can be spent. First, states must release at least 90 percent of the federal funds to districts and reserve 5 percent of the total ESSER allocation to implement interventions to address learning loss amongst historically underserved student subgroups, including ELs, foster children, and students with disabilities. Additionally, local education agencies (LEAs) must use 20 percent of their allocation for evidence-based interventions to address learning loss. Lastly, states are required to use a percentage of their state-level ESSER funds to implement evidence-based summer enrichment programs (1 percent) and comprehensive after-school programs (1 percent).

Given the magnitude of funding and relative autonomy in how to spend it, official mechanisms have already started popping up to provide transparency over education stimulus funding, but there is currently minimal information on funding beyond broad district level allocations. For example, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) created an Education Stabilization Fund tracker that shows how much ESSER funding has been allocated to each state, as well as how much SEAs have released to their respective districts. However, this tracker currently only accounts for the first ESSER fund and district level data is not provided for every state. A similar ESSER tracker was created by the National Conference of State Legislatures which shows how much each state has received from the first two relief packages, as well as other high-level information such as what SEAs have planned for their 10 percent set-aside. And an interactive database created by Education Week and the Learning Policy Institute provides state level and per-pupil funding estimates for the ARP. That being said, these tracking systems do not include information about how funding is being put to use at the school and student level, and without a unit of analysis beyond district allocations, it is difficult to see how funds are being applied relative to the priorities stipulated in the legislation.

To be sure, districts and schools are not operating in a vacuum as SEAs have been providing guidance on how funding may or may not be used. Potential activities include: professional development activities related to addressing the unique needs of ELs (Kentucky); providing consultation, coaching, and support to parents and families of historically underserved students (New Jersey); costs associated with making and delivering meals for students (Idaho); purchasing licenses for online programs or downloadable content for use by underserved students (New Jersey); mental health services and supports (California); and essentially any activity authorized under federal programs such as the Early and Secondary Education Act (Idaho and California).

While SEAs have been publicly publishing how much they’ve allocated to school districts on their websites (see Nebraska and Michigan), it would be helpful to have details on specific programs and services that will be provided to ELs using these funds. Jersey City Schools, for example, proposes to fund a summer program for ELs with $320,836 and will expand bilingual program resources with an additional $222,000 in 2021-22. And in Connecticut, North Haven School District requested $10,000 to provide additional support for ELs (though it’s not clear what that will entail). Moving forward it’s important that funding flexibility be accompanied by comprehensive tools that shine a light on how ELs have been supported by these grants. Considering that states and districts could potentially stretch the funding through 2028, the appropriate mechanisms should be put in place sooner rather than later to provide transparency. Afterall, not only are billions of dollars on the line, but so too are the futures of millions of EL students.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!

Related Topics
English Learners Federal Funding