The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law Thursday by President Joe Biden means much more money for Arkansas education, state Education Commissioner Johnny Key said Thursday.
Speaking to the Arkansas Board of Education, Key said the details aren’t yet available about all of the funding provisions and requirements in the latest covid-19 relief law, but the state’s education system could see double the more than $500 million that is being provided by a December 2020 virus relief act.
And that earlier $500 million far exceeded the $128 million distributed for education in the first round of relief funding last year.
“This is a huge amount of money,” Key said about the newest funding. “We want to help districts spend it in the wisest possible way that is going to get them the biggest bang for the buck and best impact for their students.”
Key said that “if it comes out as they say,” a portion of the money — maybe 20% — will be earmarked for addressing the learning loss students experienced as the result of the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic caused Gov. Asa Hutchinson to close schools to all on-site instruction in the spring of 2020 and disrupted instruction in the current 2020-21 school year.
Key pointed to the state’s newly announced initiative to enhance district acquisition and use of high quality instructional materials and professional training, and suggested that the federal money might be available to support that.
“The timing for this work couldn’t be better,” he said about the funding and the purchase of new instructional materials.
He also suggested that districts may be able to use the special federal funding to offset anticipated loss of state funding in the 2021-22 school year — the result of declines in student enrollment that many districts experienced. State funding for a school district is based largely on the previous year’s student enrollment.
Arkansas lawmakers are considering a bill to hold districts harmless this coming year for the student enrollment declines, meaning their state aid would not be altered.
Key said the federal money may enable the state to keep the school funding formula intact.
With the federal money, there is considerable flexibility that may enable the districts to fill holes in their budgets that are the result of covid-19, he said. It would be reasonable to say that enrollment losses were due to covid because families chose other school options such as a virtual academy, he said.
“Rather than changing the formula on the state level for one year, if this is something that is available to them and the feds are OK with them using it this way, then we want to make it available to them,” Key said.
Key said the state is working to get clarification from the U.S. Department of Education and other organizations about what can be done with the funds. The state’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education is also answering questions from and passing information along to school systems.
“We’re seeing more federal dollars in a concentrated period of time than we have ever seen before. Spending those funds wisely — we have a responsibility to assist and provide support,” Key said.
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