Great things happening with federal school rescue funds, but deadline looms

A photo of Chandra Madafferi

By Chandra Madafferi

Michigan educators and communities are doing amazing things with the billions of dollars our state has received in federal school rescue funds. While there’s still plenty of great work to be done, time is running out for school districts to put this one-time funding to good use.

Our state received $5.6 billion in federal school rescue funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program following the COVID-19 pandemic, largely under President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. This money has helped many local school districts provide much-needed support for students impacted both academically and emotionally by the pandemic.

These funds came in different phases, each with similar allowable purposes but varying expenditure deadlines. Each local school district received a portion of these school rescue funds and was entrusted with determining the best ways to address the specific needs in their respective communities.

The significant degree of local control over these funds has spurred Michigan Education Association members to work diligently to ensure that school rescue funds are being spent wisely and efficiently. Many schools throughout the state have prioritized initiatives such as implementing new tutoring programs, expanding mental health services, supporting credit recovery programs, and modernizing school infrastructure like heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

What’s more, since our kids can’t learn without good educators to teach them, many school districts have also used the extra funds to increase wages for teachers and support staff so that they can attract and retain talented staff in a highly competitive labor market.

Not only did the pandemic introduce new challenges to public education, but it also highlighted long-standing issues facing many of our schools stemming from inequitable funding, bringing these deficiencies to the forefront of discussions.

This in turn has led to valuable input from parents, students and educators — people who possess an intimate understanding of their schools’ needs — and has resulted in the development of innovative and impactful programs that might not have been feasible otherwise.

Schools have added social-emotional curriculums and related professional development support for educators, upgraded obsolete classroom technology, provided Wi-Fi hotspots for students, and even worked to expand broadband access for rural students.

For many districts, what began as necessary measures to address the academic and social impacts of the pandemic are quickly becoming a model for what schools can and should look like when provided with adequate resources.

Combined with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s bipartisan record investments in public schools, the American Rescue Plan has allowed us to make the best of a bad situation and help get our kids back on a path to success.

But ever since the program’s inception, the expenditure deadline has cast a long shadow as a reminder that this money will eventually run out. Michigan schools still have $1.5 billion in federal COVID-19 school rescue funds left to spend, and the clock is ticking.

The deadline for schools to spend these remaining funds is Sept. 30, 2024. If school districts don’t spend the funding by then, they risk forfeiture — which means forgoing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help kids impacted by the pandemic get back on track, as well as to improve local schools for the next generation of students.

From now through the deadline, we at the MEA will continue working closely with school districts across the state to ensure that they’re using this critical funding to help provide better opportunities for our students.

This is a unique opportunity to create a brighter future — and we can’t let it go to waste.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, Michigan Education Association President Chandra Madafferi, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.

(Posted as submitted to Detroit News)

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