Every Hour Counts: Catching Up on Our Community’s Federal Funding Efforts
From Crisis to Opportunity
While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented our nation with countless obstacles and challenges, it has also presented us with an opportunity to become stronger and more resilient. The most recent COVID-19 relief legislation, the American Rescue Plan Act, provides $122.775 billion to States and districts through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. This amount of funding is unprecedented: to put it into perspective, the Title I program receives about $16.5 billion annually.
The immense amount of funding comes with certain rules and requirements that may seem unfamiliar, as none of us have dealt with a pandemic within our lifetimes. A portion of the ESSER funds will be dedicated to helping students experiencing homelessness (if you are interested in learning more about how this funding is distributed, please review this resource from the U.S. Department of Education).
The remaining funding is divided between States and Local Educational Agencies (LEAs): 10 percent, or roughly $12.2 billion, stays at the State level, while the rest, $109.8 billion, is allocated to LEAs. States are required to dedicate portions of their funding to address learning loss, comprehensive afterschool programs, summer enrichment and administrative costs. LEAs have fewer requirements for their spending. They must dedicate 20 percent of their funding to address learning loss but are able to spend the rest of their funds at their own discretion.
There are materials that explain what exactly qualifies as an activity meant to address learning loss, such as the U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 Handbook: Volume 2. Additionally, the Department’s Frequently Asked Questions document clarifies that “evidence-based” activities are any that meet the tiers of the evidence as defined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and provides information regarding when funds must be spent and obligated. The Wallace Foundation released helpful guidance in this blog: American Rescue Plan: Five Things State and District Leaders Need to Know Now.
No Size Fits All: Context is Key
Although our network shares the same Federal context, situations vary from State to State and from city to city. Understanding the context of your organization’s situation is the first step in leveraging these funds or working towards other goals like building relationships and strengthening partnerships across your community.
Members of the Every Hour Counts Network shared their personal experiences and perspectives at our April 2021 virtual conference, Reimagining the Future of Afterschool, demonstrating that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to obtaining COVID-19 relief funding. Christina Hanger, from Dallas Afterschool, shared that there were logistical obstacles to accessing funding in her State: the Texas legislature only meets 5 out of every 24 months. The window for legislative action was tight for communities in Texas; the 2021 legislative session ended in May. Groups like Dallas Afterschool were unsure about whether the legislature would even accept the ESSER funding. However, this uncertainty did not stop Christina from taking action: she and her colleagues engaged in conversations with chief academic officers and 14 school districts, all while working to convince the State legislature to accept the relief funding, which finally occurred at the end of April. Christina’s efforts demonstrated the importance of relationship building, as she was able to use the relationships she cultivated to spring into action when the legislature was in session.
Stronger Together: Making Relationships Work
Relationships were key for the Tulsa Opportunity Project’s Caroline Shaw. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tulsa Opportunity Project has been collaborating with partners to provide services like full-day care to facilitate distance learning, rental assistance and food and nutrition security.
As school districts began to look towards the summer and re-engaging students, Caroline knew that pooling community resources would make Tulsa organizations stronger. She and her colleagues successfully leveraged their relationships with local leaders and formed a partnership with Tulsa Public Schools to plan the implementation of summer programming at all 72 schools this summer to re-engage students in preparation for the 2021–2022 school year. Ready, Set, Summer! will be available to all Tulsa Public Schools students during the month of July and will be bookended by additional programming in June and August. The program will be considered a success if students enroll, attend, persist, and most importantly, have fun.
Getting Started Building Relationships
Success does not take a single shape or form when building back from the COVID-19 pandemic. Through its DAA Advocate initiative, the Denver Afterschool Alliance (DAA) has been successfully navigating the complicated world of federal, state and local relief funding. The DAA, which is an initiative of the City and County of Denver’s Office of Children’s Affairs, has worked to educate City leaders that OST is an economic recovery strategy that aligns with Denver’s Rebuilding for an Inclusive & Sustainable Economy (RISE) plan, and the DAA anticipates that a portion of $700M in RISE funding will be allocated to OST providers. In addition, Regan Suhay, who leads DAA’s advocacy efforts, has focused on strengthening relationships with the Colorado Department of Education so the DAA can be a voice for out-of-school time at the state and district levels. The DAA’s proactive tracking of relief funding opportunities has strengthened its presence in COVID-19 response efforts and provided a strong start for pandemic recovery activities. DAA outlines the importance of OST in pandemic recovery efforts in the recently published report, “The Unseen Essential Industry: The out-of-school time field’s role in serving Denver youth & families during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
Every relationship can be a building block in creating a stronger and more resilient network. Chris Dandino of the Greater Rochester After-School & Summer Alliance (GRASA) has faced challenges in leadership turnover at both the State and local level. She has not let these difficulties dissuade her efforts, though. Chris views each relationship as a chance to learn from prior experiences and become more prepared for each conversation she has with decision makers. Her resilience has paid off, as she is working with State officials to address inefficiencies within the State around distributions of funds.
Add Your Voice & Share Your Story
Throughout the past year, our network has gained valuable lessons that we will use moving forward through the COVID-19 pandemic and the years of recovery to come. Some of the biggest takeaways so far include:
· Every State and locality experienced the pandemic under different circumstances. The challenges presented to individual communities varies;
· Strong relationships make obstacles more manageable; and
· The best time to start advocating and building relationships is yesterday. The second-best time is today.
Regardless of the obstacles or barriers in your community, the opportunity to make change and impact students’ lives is there. We want to hear about the efforts and progress happening in all of our communities. Please send us updates on your stories so we can continue learning and growing together.