By now, it’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted learning for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. With the recent release of the 2022 NAEP scores, we can now more accurately compare the degrees to which students from different backgrounds were impacted. Education researchers at Stanford and Harvard also looked at assessment data from individual districts across 29 states and found that students in higher-poverty, urban districts — which also tend to have higher concentrations of students of color — did indeed see larger declines in math and reading, on average, than lower-poverty districts. As students of color and students in high-poverty districts are the same students who have been underserved by the public education system since long before the pandemic, now is the time for districts and schools to invest heavily in evidence-based strategies that promote educational equity by targeting these students’ unique needs — before time runs out.

With the federal funds granted to school districts through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), district leaders can and should be using these funds to disrupt educational inequities; however, there is little evidence to suggest that this is actually happening on a broad scale. According to a recent McKinsey report, “By the end of the 2021–22 school year — halfway through the available funding window — districts had spent an estimated $45 billion of total available funds. That leaves approximately $130 billion to allocate over the next three budget cycles, increasing districts’ near-term annual budgets by approximately 5 to 6 percent. Based on these findings, McKinsey projects that nearly $20 billion in ESSER funds may not be obligated by the deadline because of a variety of factors, including administrative hurdles, limited internal planning capacity, and talent and vendor shortages.”

Between unfinished learning, teacher shortages, and the rising student mental-health crisis, it is imperative that advocates and parents put pressure on district and school leaders to invest immediately — and substantially — in practices that are proven to be effective in improving opportunities and outcomes for underserved students. The Education Trust has identified five promising practices we believe are most important in advancing educational equity:

  1. Accelerating student learning, including targeted intensive tutoring and expanded learning time
  2. Student, family, and community engagement
  3. Safe and equitable learning environments
  4. Teacher recruitment and retention
  5. Data equity and reporting transparency

These strategies go beyond the standard investments in things like infrastructure repair, pay raises for teachers, and HVAC upgrades — which, while important, are insufficient in addressing the specific needs of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Some districts are intentionally investing in some of these best practices, as highlighted in our ARP District Promising Practices Guide. For example, Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia opened a multilingual help line and hired a district-wide Spanish-speaking family liaison to support families with technology and distance learning. Our guide highlights four other districts and we urge others to follow their lead.

This is also the time to invest in teacher recruitment and retention in long-standing shortage areas, like the national shortage of teachers of color. This is an important strategy for promoting equity, as a growing body of research suggests that students of color benefit academically, socially, and emotionally from having teachers who share their background. Some states have already used federal funds to invest in efforts to recruit, prepare, and retain teachers of color, including investments in Grow Your Own apprenticeship models and the expansion of teacher residencies. For more information about states’ efforts to increase the racial diversity of the workforce using federal funds, view Ed Trust’s report, How States Can Use American Rescue Plan Funding and Federal Grants to Support Teacher Diversity.

Given the massive influx of education funding granted by ARP, all public school districts have the capacity to invest substantially in evidence-based strategies that target longstanding inequities within the education system; it is now a matter of demanding that they do so. While funding is finite, it is time that is running out faster: all ARP funds must be obligated by September 2024. But fear not: Even if future school budgets have been decided, it’s still possible for and funds reallocated, so families and advocates can put pressure on district leaders and school board members to redistribute funds and prioritize the unique needs of their students who need the most support.