The Future of CARES Act Funds: What You Need to Know
By Jon Hummell, National Manager of State Initiatives at Lexia Learning
Here we are at the start of a new school year, albeit one unlike any other. And as you probably already know, Congress has allocated an unprecedented amount of federal education funding to help school districts overcome the unique challenges associated with the pandemic.
When the CARES Act was passed in April, it included $13.2 billion for an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund and $3 billion for a Governor's Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund. Since then, Congress has debated follow-on legislation that could make several billion more dollars available to school districts. As of the time of writing, that additional funding has not come to pass, and many districts are still trying to determine how best to invest the original funding.
How should schools spend what's left?
In "7 Habits of Highly Effective People," renowned author Stephen R. Covey recommends beginning with the end in mind. So, how does that translate to optimizing CARES Act funds?
Understandably, federal and state officials have focused on using the funds to purchase devices and facilitate internet access. But while narrowing the digital divide is critically important to effectively delivering remote learning, student outcomes are not improved by new devices and improved connectivity alone. I like to use the analogy of having a new car in your driveway without wheels—it may look great, but it's not going to get you where you want to go.
As an educator, it's important to focus on the end result of improved student outcomes. You can narrow that focus by asking the following questions in order:
What specific outcome do I want to impact?
What population of students am I focusing on?
What program or content will help me achieve that specific outcome with that specific population of students?
What device (tablet, laptop, etc.) will be most effective in delivering that program or content to those students?
Can those students use that device to access that program or content from home and school?
If your state or district has not yet received its expected funds or still has funds left to spend, consider deploying Lexia® Core5® Reading and PowerUp Literacy® solutions to help you achieve your end result.
So, why Lexia?
Research on outcomes among different student populations: Lexia programs are research-proven to boost learning outcomes required by federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Founded through a research grant more than 30 years ago, Lexia is committed to conducting evidence-based, scientific research to support its product development and demonstrate its programs' efficacy. For the past 15 years, researchers around the world have conducted and published studies of Lexia products, and more than 20 externally reviewed research studies have concluded that Lexia products meet the standards of evidence under ESSA.
Assessment Without Testing®: These reports empower teachers with real-time, actionable data that takes the guesswork out of differentiating instruction and saves educators up to a month of instructional time. Using Assessment Without Testing®, teachers can focus on the greatest need by prescribing the time needed to accelerate learning and close gaps.
Adaptive learning framework: Does your literacy program travel with the student, or do you scramble to adapt when learning environments change? Lexia's adaptive learning framework supports learning in the classroom, virtually, and in hybrid models. You won't miss a step with a blended learning program that adapts to any scenario.
Equity for all: With Lexia's personalized literacy programs, students receive the exact instruction they need, exactly when they need it. The programs' explicit, adaptive instruction scaffolds struggling students and advances them to higher levels as they master skills, providing an added layer of support when teachers are not working directly with students.
Ultimately, the combination of federal funding and local flexibility provided to districts offers a unique chance to reimagine instruction. As the Education Strategy Group put it, "State and local leaders have a real chance to turn this crisis into an opportunity to drive new approaches to education." Looking back to 2009, the $5 billion in federal stimulus funds made available through Race to the Top and I3 grants after the recession presented "opportunities for state and local leaders to raise expectations for students, dramatically improve academic growth, increase postsecondary enrollment and success, and, perhaps most importantly, close equity gaps in K–12 and higher education." To phrase it more succinctly, now is the time for schools to innovate.
How are states spending their funds?
On March 12, Ohio became the first state in the nation to close its schools. By March 25, all U.S. public schools had closed, which gave administrators little to no time to plan for finishing the school year. By mid-June, states had identified the following priorities for the incoming federal funds:
As you can see, the top identified priority was addressing the digital divide and equipping students for remote learning, and many states allocated a large portion of funds accordingly. Per The Hunt Institute's GEER fund utilization tracking:
Hawaii allocated $15.01 million for devices and connectivity, including mobile hubs ($2.89 million), 12,000 new devices intended for use upon school reopening ($6.57 million), and 10,000 new devices for summer learning (about $5.46 million).
Tennessee allocated $50 million for district device strategies to implement distance learning.
Indiana allocated $61 million for improving connectivity and increasing the number of devices available to students and teachers.
Oregon planned to provide district support during the transition to remote learning by expanding internet access and purchasing educational equipment.
New Jersey planned to purchase digital devices and improve connectivity.
Alabama allocated $10 million toward equipping all school buses with Wi-Fi capabilities to increase connectivity and help bridge the digital divide.
Professional development emerged as the second highest priority, which is unsurprising given the fact that many teachers are facing a steep learning curve when it comes to adapting their instructional methods and curricula to better suit remote learning. According to The Hunt Institute:
In Florida, the Florida Department of Education partnered with Florida Virtual School—a statewide, internet-based public high school—to provide professional development through a course titled "Virtual Teacher Training with COVID-19."
In North Carolina, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is providing virtual professional development opportunities organized by subject.
In Maine, the Maine Department of Education is holding regular virtual office hours and providing virtual professional development opportunities around instruction, culturally responsive practice, civic responsibility, and other topics.
Learning management systems and digital curriculum resources were the third highest priorities. Once again, the allocation data from The Hunt Institute matched up well:
Oklahoma planned to either purchase a new learning management system (LMS) or enhance its existing system to support students in distance learning.
Arkansas planned to provide an LMS to assist in delivering quality digital content.
Illinois planned to support the development, deployment, and adoption of remote learning curricula and curricular resources.
Florida planned to fund each school and district's efforts to identify curricula and content to support teaching and learning, as well as to create steps for monitoring student progress in courses delivered virtually and through distance learning.
How much have states spent so far?
According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, $149.5 billion of the original $150 billion in CARES Act funds had been disbursed to state governments as of August 4—however, governments had only spent one-quarter of their funding by the end of June.
While these top-line numbers don't reveal what portion of ESSER/GEER funds currently remain unspent, it is fair to speculate that the reactive buying surge of the spring and summer may have relaxed as educators take a more thoughtful and strategic approach to the fall semester.
So, if you're an educator still figuring out what to do with your funding, remember: Begin with the end in mind. Innovate. And, ultimately, aim to lead your students toward improved outcomes. You've got this!
–Jon Hummell, National Manager of State Initiatives, Lexia Learning
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