Congress Provides Education Relief through the American Rescue Plan Act

Congress Provides Education Relief through
the American Rescue Plan Act

On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, a massive piece of legislation providing $1.9 trillion of pandemic relief on many different levels. This comes after Congress passed the bill on March 10 using the budget reconciliation process.

The legislation will provide $126 billion for K–12 schools and $40 billion to support institutions of higher education. Governors will receive $2.75 billion to share with private schools, and more than $6 billion will be allocated for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Photo: iStockImages / drnadig

The K–12 funding falls under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, which was included in two previous COVID-19 relief bills. State education agencies can reserve 12.5 percent of the allocation for operations dealing with learning loss, after-school learning, and summer learning. The amount of ESSER funds allocated to each state and district will be based on the relative amount of Title I funding the state or district receives.

The legislation identifies 12 types of spending as allowable uses for ESSER funds, the first of which is “any activity authorized by the ESEA of 1965” and other federal education laws. Other federal laws for which ESSER funds can be used include IDEA, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. 

The American Rescue Act provides the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate program with $7.2 billion to address the “homework gap,” which refers to the inequality of opportunity experienced by students who lack home internet access. Despite efforts by states and school districts to supply internet connected hardware, recent research estimates that 12 million K–12 students in the United States still lack internet access one year into the pandemic. With students of color and students from rural areas more likely to experience the digital divide, the distance learning environment precipitated by COVID-19 has exacerbated education inequities as millions of students have been disconnected from their teachers and classmates.

The package also includes $350 billion for state and local governments. Approximately 1.4 million state and local government workers, many of them employed by schools, have lost their jobs since last March, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The legislation places some restrictions on the state and local aid—most notably that it can only be used to provide government services or plug budget holes left by revenue that was lost due to the pandemic. Using the aid to pay down pension funds or offset new tax cuts is prohibited.

All three funding pieces—the ESSER funds, the FCC funds, and the state and local aid—address critical areas of need and have been part of NAfME’s legislative agenda for months. Music education advocates played a role in building support for this legislation which will now provide the largest amount of funding the federal government has ever sent to states for K–12 public schools.

By comparison, regular Department of Education funding is just over $73.5 billion for FY 2021, which covers all federal K–12 and higher education spending. The American Rescue Plan provides $126 billion for K–12 funding alone, which is more than double the amount Congress appropriated for K–12 in FY 2021. On top of the COVID-19 relief funding, we can also expect an increase in FY 2022 education appropriations which should result in more federal dollars intended to support a well-rounded education.

While this is great news, one can expect organizational and capacity issues as these large sums of money reach schools districts. This makes advocacy and planning for your music programs an urgent priority.

Photo: Ashlee Wilcox Photography / Documentary

What Can You Do Right Now?

Being prepared is key and there are various ways to do so. First, consider how ESSER funds can be used and how to obtain them. NAfME recommends reaching out to your building principal to discuss the resources that are necessary to conduct music classes safely in-person. The principal may either have spending authority on the funds or be able to help submit a request for music-related purchases at the district level. In other cases, purchasing is handled at the central district level by the district’s business or procurement offices. If you have music or arts coordinator, they can be helpful in this situation. Otherwise, reach out to your direct supervisor to ask how you can ensure your classroom has what is necessary for in-person music-making.

Knowing how you wish to use the funds will go a long way in persuading decision-makers to distribute money for your music programs. Consider using NAfME’s Opportunity to Learn Standards, which were developed to identify the resources that need to be in place so that teachers, schools, and school districts can give students a meaningful chance to achieve at the levels spelled out in the 2014 Music Standards.

Another resource that may be helpful is NAfME’s Local Advocacy Toolkit. This resource is intended to aid music educators and music education supporters as they seek to improve the overall condition of a music program. The tool will help create a local advocacy plan for pursuing new resources and opportunities that can improve a music educator’s ability to provide students with high quality music education experiences.

This historical increase in federal funding is a great opportunity for music programs across the country. Stay tuned for upcoming NAfME resources to help you seek this additional funding.

NAfME Public Policy Staff, March 14, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (