For students facing the greatest barriers to school success and long-term stability, the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act was a positive step forward. The law dedicates $800 million to the identification, enrollment and school success of children and youth experiencing homelessness and $3 billion for those with disabilities — in addition to $122 billion for K-12 education. Yet, even with these dedicated funds, there are still significant unmet needs for underserved children, such as English learners, who comprise 10 percent of K-12 students.
State policymakers and agencies must now ensure that the stimulus funding is distributed and implemented to reach students with the greatest needs.
Even before the pandemic, public schools reported a record 1.5 million children and youth experiencing homelessness nationwide — a population that is disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities and English learners. The national high school graduation rate for English learners was 68 percent in the 2017-18 school year, compared with 85 percent for all students. We can only expect more troubling trends, as COVID-19 has compounded the trauma and barriers facing underserved students. But equitable state-level implementation of stimulus funds can make the critical difference in whether they recover from this crisis.
Previous COVID-19 packages provided state and school district funding for a range of education-related needs but did not require any of this funding to be directed to students with barriers to education access — nor did it require agencies to report on how funds were spent. As a result, only 18 percent of local liaisons for the homeless indicated that CARES Act funds were being used to support homeless children and youth, even though an estimated one in four homeless children have gone unidentified and possibly unenrolled in public schools due to COVID-19. Just last month, two-thirds of educators reported that their English learner students are not doing well or are only doing slightly well. Initial research from the Education Trust shows referral rates for children in need of special education and early intervention services have dropped — in some places by as much as 70 percent — and wait times for services have increased, exacerbating pre-COVID-19 inequities.
States must allocate these funds to ensure these students benefit from the rescue plan’s unprecedented investment in education. This means reaching vulnerable children and tailoring solutions that help overcome the trauma and the barriers they face to learning and thriving. For example, intensive family outreach is needed to identify and re-engage children and youth who have struggled the most during this crisis. Students experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities and English learners must be able to access and meaningfully participate in activities to address instructional loss, such as afterschool and summer programs. Schools should prioritize meeting the individual needs of students with trauma-informed, wraparound services that are culturally and linguistically responsive to support the whole child.
Meeting their needs also means ensuring that federal funds contribute to developing and supporting programs that are inclusive and universally designed, equipping educators and service providers to implement evidence-based instruction and culturally responsive practices. It means engaging with families in accessible ways, such as in their native language, and building programs that partner with community-based organizations.
Of the plan’s K-12 education funding, states are required to allocate 5 percent for learning loss, 1 percent for after school programs and 1 percent for summer school. Local education agencies must also direct 20 percent of their funds to address instructional loss. Students who are homeless, who have disabilities and who are English Learners are specifically named in each of these allocations because of COVID-19’s devastating impacts on their education, health and well-being.
Our society was already grappling with converging and compounding crises of education inequity before COVID-19, and now, with a national reckoning with systemic injustice, there has never been a more critical time for leaders at every level to expand opportunity and equity for all students. As the upheaval of a pandemic intensifies the trauma of students who are homeless, living with disabilities or English learners — and their families — state leaders must ensure that federal resources reach the students who need them most. The stimulus will fail to achieve real recovery if it leaves millions of the most vulnerable students and their families behind.
Barbara Duffield is executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit organization working to overcome homelessness through education. Lindsay Jones is president and CEO of National Center for Learning Disabilities, which works to improve the lives of the 1 in 5 children and adults nationwide with learning and attention issues. Janet Murguía is president and CEO of UnidosUS, which advocates for Latinos in the areas of civic engagement, civil rights and immigration, education, workforce and the economy, health and housing.