What is the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021?

You may have heard it as the “second big COVID stimulus,” but the actual name is The American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, and it was signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021. The whole package is $1.9 trillion. The only larger economic rescue plan in American history was last year’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION DESCRIBES ARPA AS AN “EMERGENCY LEGISLATIVE PACKAGE TO FUND VACCINATIONS, PROVIDE IMMEDIATE, DIRECT RELIEF TO FAMILIES BEARING THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 CRISIS, AND SUPPORT STRUGGLING COMMUNITIES.”The Biden Administration describes ARPA as an “emergency legislative package to fund vaccinations, provide immediate, direct relief to families bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, and support struggling communities.”

So what does that mean for families and children?

How will ARPA help K-12 public education?

This is the biggest federal funding boost ever for American schools, allotting $125 billion to K-12 school districts and state education departments. Most of the money is intended to address learning loss suffered by students during pandemic-induced school closures.

With so much money on the line, there’s a lot at stake. This money could be transformational in re-inventing schooling to ensure that students, especially those traditionally left behind, are provided with the teachers and tools they need to be successful. Or the money could be frittered away on items that don’t actually benefit our children.

How will the ARPA money be divided up?

The bill is focused on low-income students, who have been hit hardest by remote instruction, but all schools will receive lots of aid, much more than they had been expecting. Every year the federal government provides special funding for low-income students, which is called Title I money. This revenue stream gives extra funding to schools “to ensure economically disadvantaged children receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, by helping to close academic achievement gaps.”


The ARPA package blows historical Title 1 funding out of the water: it is eight times more than the usual annual amount distributed by the government for low-income students.

Districts with higher percentages of low-income students will get more money from ARPA than districts with lower percentages, but every district in the country will see a windfall.

 What can the money be used for?

A whole bunch of things, as long as districts use 20% of ARPA funds to directly address learning loss. The bill suggests interventions like “summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive after-school programs, or extended school year programs.”

The rest of the money can be used to buy cleaning supplies to keep school facilities disinfected; equipment to help with social-distancing; laptops, chromebooks and other technology to bridge the digital divide; social-emotional support for students traumatized by the pandemic; updates to HVAC systems and air purifiers; and “activities to address the unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth.”

Also, upon receiving the money, districts must prepare a plan within 30 days to  “for the safe return to in-person instruction.”

Who actually gets the money?

Often the federal government sends money straight to the states, and then states divvy the money up among districts. This time is very different. Most of the ARPA money—90%—will go directly to school districts. But state departments of education still benefit by splitting $12 billion in total.

This means that a lot of the decisions about how this money will be spent will be made at the local level. And that means there are a lot of opportunities for activism to ensure the money supports the children and families who need it most. (More on that below.)

Are there any restrictions on how ARPA money can be spent?

Not really, although the language of ARPA makes clear that districts are expected to spend some of the money on “high-quality assessments” to figure out how far kids are behind in learning. These assessments don’t have to be the usual standardized tests your state requires. States can use “formative” or “diagnostic” tests to pin down learning gaps. Schools are also expected to plan for future school closings by ensuring that all students have laptops or other one-on-one devices and all have access to broadband internet.

What about students with disabilities and English-language learners?

There is money set aside (within the $125 billion) to help students who have special needs, whether that’s coping with dyslexia, learning English, or suffering homelessness. For example, $2.58 billion goes to students with disabilities and $800 million goes to homeless students.

What about private schools?

They get money too, as long as they serve a “significant” number of low-income students. The amount that will get divided up among states is $2.75 billion.

Does all this extra money mean my school taxes will go down?

It’s hard to tell. Some schools actually saved money this pandemic year by not having to use buildings or pay for transportation, so they’ve built up a big cash balance.

But one rule in ARPA is that districts are not allowed to lower the amount they’ve been spending on non-pandemic-related costs, so your school can’t use the ARPA money to pay regular classroom teachers or run buses or contribute to pensions. And the package specifically bans making bigger funding cuts to high-poverty school districts compared to other districts.

How long does my district have to spend all that money?

About two year and a half years, until October 2024. That’s the deadline for allocating all the money.

What are the opportunities for activism to ensure ARPA money supports child justice?

There are many opportunities here, both at a local level and at the state level. Here are a few ideas:

  • Go to your school board meetingand ask how your district plans on spending its ARPA funds. How are administrators planning to assess learning loss among students, and what additional programs will be started to help kids catch up? What about mental health programs for students? Will the district compensate students with disabilities for missed therapy sessions during school closures? Demand clear answers!
  • What about teacher diversity?If your district is hiring more teachers with this money, are they prioritizing the recruitment of teachers of color? This money could be transformational in providing students with more teachers who look like them. After all, research shows that “Black students who have Black teachers have better academic outcomes, are suspended less often, and face higher expectations from their teachers.”
  • What about internet connectivity?No one wants to see another pandemic, but if schools have to close again, has your district ensured that every student has their own laptop or tablet? Does every child have broadband internet access? Are buildings being updated to meet COVID-19 precautions?
  • Don’t forget the state education agency.At the state level, speak to your legislative representatives and ensure that they are overseeing the state department of education’s responsibilities. Or reach out directly to your state superintendent or chief. They’re not used to hearing directly from constituents, and you may be able to exert real pressure to ensure they are working towards real child justice.
  • Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be put off by government documents. Yes, they are long and often confusing. But fortunately, there are many resources to help you understand ARPA. Start with ExcelinEd’s overviewand Bellwether’s discussion. Remember, knowledge is power!


Article by: Laura Waters

Laura Waters is a mom, education blogger and former school board president in New Jersey. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all.