March 12, 2021

The American Rescue Plan Act: Opportunity & Risk

By Bellwether

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President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law earlier this week, the celebrations and messaging start today. It’s a massive spending package with ambitions that would have seemed off the map of the terms of the debate during the previously massive 2009 ARRA Act and the past decade overall. The $1.9 trillion package has important anti-poverty and Covid-relief provisions but also covers things like pension bailouts, taxes on student loan forgiveness, mass transportation, and a host of other things. Elections have consequences, as they say, and the Democrats are making a big bet here.

Maybe overlooked? The law’s child tax credit policy has several potential short and long term benefits and effects, but perhaps an overlooked one is that it may serve as a backdoor voucher for Catholic schools and low-cost private options like some emerging micro schools.*

And it has a lot of money for P-12 education. An almost 20 percent infusion on the annual spend rate.

That money could be catalyzing to “build back better” or move from pandemic to progress. Or, despite its $123 billion price tag, it could get absorbed into a political, policy, and operational ecosystem well-designed for moving through resources and leaving little impact in its wake. Given that the economic cliff has not turned out to be as dire overall as feared nor Covid school as expensive, and some states are even running surpluses, the opportunity to genuinely address learning loss and build a more effective and equitable education system is a real one. And a fleeting one. The risk here is real and across all the states and with various set sides $123 billion is, amazingly, not as much as it seems at first blush.** And especially not if it gets spread around like political peanut butter.

Next week, on Wednesday, Bellwether is holding a webinar to discuss some lessons from ARRA and ideas for today with leaders from that effort.

During ARRA and that time period we advised a lot of states on recovery plans and Race to the Top, including initial and early round winners. And our strategy team supported a variety of grant competitions with an industry leading win rate. We also analyzed the impact of the ARRA funds and early lessons learned. And we called attention to problems, our 2012 teacher evaluation paper “The Hangover” was out of step with the zeitgeist but identified some issues that turned out to be significant. Because our team includes people with federal policy experience and experience working in SEAs around the country (as well as people with building level experience teaching and leading schools) we can bring a viewpoint diverse and pragmatic perspective to our work. And, of course, we work with school districts of all sizes and geographies, charter school networks, and various intermediaries too.

Our team is excited to dig in again this time and has been doing Covid response work since last March. And we’re keenly cognizant of the challenges here to make sure these resources build a case for efficacy and investment in public education rather than becoming an argument against it.

If you don’t know how to reach us and want to learn more, start here.

*Lamar Alexander, call your office.

**There are also big opportunities here for marginalized students, for instance an $800 million set-aside for homeless students, which could be a game-changer if well- deployed.

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