With the American Rescue Plan (ARP) officially signed into law, the nation’s public school systems will soon have an additional $126 billion to navigate challenges brought on by the pandemic. That leaves state education leaders with a burning question: How can that funding be used to address the most pressing issues that the COVID-19 crisis has created for schools?
With nearly 12 million American students—many of them low-income, rural, or students of color—still lacking high-quality Internet access, developing statewide digital equity plans to help schools close the digital divide seems like the best place to start.
Getting Every Child Connected
Digital equity plans aren’t a new concept. In a March 2021 brief entitled “Guiding Principles and Essential Strategies for Education Funds,” the education reform think tank ExcelinEd identifies these statewide efforts as a swift investment with a huge upside.
ExcelinEd also outlines precisely what these plans could look like. State education agencies could each create their own statewide digital equity plans, including a blueprint for securing 1:1 access to devices and connectivity, that could be adopted by local school districts. States could then match local investments in these digital equity plans to help free up extra funds for districts.
Because most of the ARP’s relief funding will ultimately end up being managed by school districts themselves, it’s important that local digital equity plans are centered around the unique needs and challenges of the district. In communities where connectivity has been historically poor, districts could use their digital equity plans to design targeted interventions for disconnected students at risk of becoming “invisible” during periods of remote learning. And every district could benefit from analytics by organizations like DigitalBridgeK12, which has developed step-by-step guides for school districts to perform individualized needs assessments and identify students without connections. As the pandemic rages on, getting every child connected has become more important than ever.
Now Is The Time To Close The Digital Divide
Given the momentous nature of the ARP’s passage—it’s one of the largest spending bills in American history—it’s doubtful that schools will have this kind of cash on hand again anytime soon. Districts will also have quite a bit of flexibility in how they use that funding, too. While 20% of the plan’s K-12 funding is earmarked for addressing learning loss, schools can essentially use the rest of their ARP funds as they see fit, whether that’s for purchasing cleaning supplies, investing in new education technology, or anything in between.
While President Biden and Education Secretary Cardona have suggested that ARP funding could be used to hire additional educators, investing in statewide digital equity plans and connectivity expansion is a more logical approach for this massive, one-time cash infusion. Such investments would generate immediate impact without requiring ongoing financial commitments.
In fact, we’re already seeing the payoff in states where leaders used earlier rounds of relief funding to invest in digital equity.
In Mississippi, for example, state lawmakers used their allotted emergency funds to help every school district become 1:1. In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey committed part of the state’s CARES funding to develop a public-private broadband initiative that’s providing Internet service to low-income households. The fascinating part? The funding that made each of these huge, statewide initiatives possible pale in comparison to the most recent K-12 provisions.
With the ARP providing almost ten times more relief funding to schools than the initial CARES act, education leaders are in a better position than ever to double down on their efforts to close the digital divide. Digital equity for all students has never been a more attainable goal, and that means now is the time to get to work.