Getting Equitable Access to Arts Education: Understanding the American Rescue Plan Act

On Thursday, March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021, a $1.9 trillion package in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Of the more than $122 billion allocated for K-12 schools, at least 90 percent of funds are required to be used by State Education Agencies (SEAs) to make subgrants to Local Educational Agencies (LEAs). Under the bill, SEAs and LEAs are required to allocate a significant percentage of funding towards evidence-based interventions – such as summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive after school programs, or extended school year programs – that address the social, emotional, and academic needs of students, particularly those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has emphasized through its COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs, the importance of ensuring students have access to an enriched and well-rounded education (which includes the arts) to support efforts to recover from the impact of COVID-19 and re-engage students after more than a year of disruption. ED’s handbook further points to the Arts Education Partnership’s ArtsEdSearch as a resource for evidence-based practices to SEAs and LEAs as they seek to address inequities in access to a well-rounded education.

At this time, states have already received two-thirds of their ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) allocation ($81 billion) and will have access to the remaining $41 billion after the Department approves states’ plans. On April 21, the ED released the application that states will need to submit by June 7, describing how they will use resources under the ARP ESSER fund in order to continue to reopen schools safely, sustain their safe operations and support students.

What does this mean for you as a funder group or organization engaged in arts education work?

Seize this opportunity now to reach out to your state department of education or local school districts as they are engaged in planning. Explore with them how you can help schools use these funds in ways aligned to their priorities and the requirements to support students’ social and emotional needs and ensure access to the arts in this time of ongoing recovery. This is also an excellent opportunity for you to work with your state or local school district not to simply build back what was there, but to help them analyze whether pre-pandemic arts and arts education was equally serving all students, including low-income students and students of color.

While these funds must be obligated (or committed in Federal budget speak) by SEAs in one year and by LEAs by September 2023, they do not necessarily need to be spent by then. That means while some of this money will go into summer and the new school year, it can also support efforts beyond this immediate time frame. The bottom line here is these new funds can not only help school districts recover from the pandemic, but also move them toward more equitable access to the arts and enriching arts education experiences.

Image: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash