US Education Policy

Centering Student Voice in COVID-19 ARP ESSER Plans

June 15, 2021  • Education and Society Program

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the allocation of $122B in funding towards K-12 schools in The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) presents a critical opportunity for policymakers and educators to center students in their decision-making. COVID-19 has both exacerbated longstanding inequities and created new challenges to learning, and the influx of ARP ESSER funding to schools across the country has come at a critical time. However, ARP ESSER funds should not be used to accelerate a return to ‘normal’—typical decision-making processes, policies and practices which did not effectively serve the needs of many students, even before COVID-19.

Policymakers and educators should always work to meaningfully elevate the voices and needs of students in education decisions, but ARP ESSER funding provides an incredible opportunity to make strides towards a more just education system. Aggregated data related to student outcomes, such as test scores or demographic information, can capture broad trends but often lacks nuance and misses key connections. However, student voice is essential to understanding the full picture of inequities and challenges students face: elevating the lived experiences of young people can provide policymakers with critical information about why inequities persist and how to move towards solutions that serve all students. Students are the primary stakeholders of our education system, and their needs and expertise should be at the center of any decisions that affect them.

In the Student Engagement for ARP ESSER State Plans Roundtable co-convened by Aspen Institute Education & Society Program, Student Voice and Our Turn, two national youth-driven organizations, student leaders shared ways to engage students in the ARP ESSER funding decision-making process. Here’s what they recommended:

Collaborate with existing student-driven groups 

Student-driven groups, which include school clubs, youth-serving nonprofits, community organizing groups and more, can provide critical support with accessing students for feedback and generating co-created solutions. Student-driven groups are often already based in open and reciprocal trust-based relationships, which helps strengthen the co-design process. Student Voice and Our Turn are two national examples, but local student-driven groups may be especially helpful to schools and districts and exist in communities across the country.

Ensure meaningful partnership between student and decision-makers

Meaningful student voice entails shifting power to students, especially those most marginalized by the current education system. To that end, students should be elevated as equal partners in conversations where decisions about ARP ESSER funding are being made, not sidelined to check a box as a compliance activity. Policymakers should create specific opportunities to solicit  student experiences and opinions, through formats such as dedicated panels, or breakout sessions. Students should be engaged frequently and all throughout (beginning, middle and end) the decision-making process, from vision setting to implementation. 

Prepare to engage students

All efforts should be made to ensure decision-making spaces are as accessible as possible: especially focusing on  students most affected by the inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 and the targets of ARP ESSER funding decisions. Some considerations include:

  • Allowing both in-person and remote access
  • Ensuring representation among communities most impacted by COVID-19 and historic disinvestment, including communities of color, low-income areas, and rural areas
  • Adding translation, captioning and other accommodations as needed
  • Unpacking all information and jargon with students at least one week in advance to guarantee students feel comfortable engaging in high-level policy conversations
  • Incentivizing student engagement (e.g. extra credit, stipend, leadership certification)
  • Supplementing the working sessions with a survey, following the same design as working sessions

Follow up with students about how their input was used

After conversations, education leaders should follow-up with students and share how their input was used. Knowing how their advice and insights were implemented helps students feel like they are being meaningfully engaged.

Engaging students by design

Engaging students requires thoughtful and explicit design, but can provide immense, transformative benefits for policymakers. Learning from student voices in decision-making surrounding ARP ESSER funding ensures that solutions serve real student experiences, guaranteeing that policies in this critical moment center schools’ biggest stakeholders.

For a student-driven plan on how to engage us in conversations about ARP ESSER funding, see our brief here.