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States Must Address K-12 Unfinished Learning for an Equitable Recovery

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As K-12 schools continue to recover from COVID-19 pandemic disruptions, states can equitably support students, especially students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and those from families with low incomes, to complete unfinished learning and address the widening education opportunity gap. States can spend some of the remaining State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (FRF) from the American Rescue Plan — a collective $80 billion — on interventions to achieve more equitable learning outcomes. Meanwhile, states should also begin to address long-standing challenges related to inadequate and inequitable school funding.

In addition to FRF, the Rescue Plan provides $123 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds – the largest-ever one-time federal investment in K-12 education. States are required to use at least 5 percent of the funds to address unfinished learning. However, even this historic K-12 funding may fall short of pandemic-induced education costs. Perhaps the most significant cost will be making up for unfinished learning time. Estimates indicate a cost of at least $108 billion for extended learning and high-intensity tutoring to reach half of U.S. schoolchildren. Even before the pandemic, schools had endured years of inadequate and inequitable funding, which contributed to the long-standing opportunity gap and other inequities.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, students from households with low incomes, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students have experienced more harmful mental health and academic challenges. By the end of the 2020-2021 school year, students of color were estimated to have lost nine months of learning due to long-standing systemic racism and disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.

States have tremendous flexibility in using their remaining FRF and targeting investments to evidence-based programs to help students. As of December 2021, 27 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands had allocated $5.9 billion in FRF (excluding ESSER) to education — that’s only 5 percent of the funds spent so far. States should target FRF to students most in need to work toward an antiracist, equitable, and inclusive recovery.

To address unfinished learning, states should invest FRF and provide technical assistance to districts for strategic, equitable spending on programs to extend learning time, such as afterschool, summer, and in-school programs. Increasing instructional time can boost learning for all age groups and types of students. States also can use FRF for intensive “high dosage” tutoring programs for students who need it. Some features of effective, intensive tutoring include smaller student-tutor ratios, certified teachers, regular sessions, and tutoring that aligns with learning during the school day, research shows.

Services such as tutoring, summer school, and afterschool programs should also ensure accessibility for families with lower incomes, as high-income families are more likely to report their children using these supports. School districts can also seek input from families, students, and educators to design effective programs. Many families and caregivers supported remote tutoring for the 2021-2022 school year, and students also opted to enroll in tutoring when it was offered in their schools, according to a study by the University of Southern California. Families and students should also be integrated into developing services tailored to their needs. Some educators have shared their ideas for strengthening quality and partnerships to develop extended learning programs. 

A few states have already modeled these approaches using their FRF. For example, D.C. invested $21 million for high-impact and frequency tutoring programs in its schools, focusing on students who are academically behind and at risk of not graduating high school. Maryland allocated $46 million to address unfinished learning through its Blueprint for Education Reform — a pre-pandemic initiative focused on addressing racial and economic disparities in education — and called for billions in new educational investments over several years (but was not funded until the state’s FRF kicked in). Nevada spent $200 million to provide grants to school districts and university schools to support evidence-based educational services, tutoring, summer school, afterschool programs, and other extended learning and enrichment programs.

FRF help schools cover pandemic-related costs and provide more equitable funding. But in the long term, states can ensure permanent financial resources for underfunded districts serving high-poverty communities by protecting them from budget cuts, raising new revenue, and targeting dollars to traditionally underserved students. Adequate funding raises educational attainment and reduces the opportunity gap, but many states provide less funding to high-poverty school districts than low-poverty ones.

Equitable K-12 funding would also advance racial equity for Black, Indigenous, and students of color who disproportionately attend schools with fewer resources. School districts serving households with low incomes can coordinate service “hubs” of community resources to provide holistic supports, such as mental health, health care, food, and care, whereas many students from wealthier — and often white — communities can already afford these resources. Raising additional education revenues and restructuring tax codes are steps toward a more just and equitable future for students, families, and communities.