Chances to transform the education system don’t come around very often. That’s why since President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan (ARP) into effect in March 2021, educators, policymakers, and politicians alike have weighed in with suggestions on how the once-in-a-lifetime education funding should be spent. (For recommendations for how to prioritize high schools with ARP dollars, check out Choose High School Now.)
However, even with this revolutionary funding, many forgot to include important voices in the conversation. We believe wholeheartedly in the power of students not only to speak to issues in the education space, but to co-create solutions, alongside adult decision-makers. In fact, ‘youth voice’ is one of the guiding design principles embodied by every XQ school. That’s why the loudest voices in the conversation on how to use ARP funds to transform education should be the people who have the most at stake—students themselves.
Spotlighting Student Voice
Josh Stern, a 2021 high school grad, education activist, and XQ Student Advisor, is deeply involved in rethinking high school. Josh has advocated for change for most of his life. He moved through the education system as a student at the periphery. “My interest in policy comes from a place of knowing what it feels like to live in an underrepresented group,” Josh explains. “I have a physical disability, and I use a wheelchair to get around. And so a lot of this came very early on for me—this concept of having to say: That’s not right, and no one else is gonna fix it.”
This desire to make school work for all—and to inspire a generation of students to advocate for themselves and their education—makes Josh an invaluable voice on ARP funding. He joined us for a conversation about the importance of these funds, and the role students will play in shaping the future of education.
Why ARP Matters for High School and for Students
We know that this funding is historic. It’s the single largest investment in public education in American history. We need to seize this moment to make lasting changes of a similarly historic scale.
Having money to invest in structural reforms is crucial, but it’s only part of making changes that stick. All investments of ARP funding need to be driven by student interest and student voice, so they’ll continue to grow even after funding is gone. “[ARP funding] is a jumping-off point for programs that are sustainable,” Josh explains. “It’s a jumping-off point for programs that will change the landscape of American education.”
As we think about how to invest this funding for change across the entire K-12 system, we need to consider the crucial role that high school plays in setting up young people for successful futures. With this in mind, according to Josh, we need to make high school a central focus of ARP funding. “High school is the last gate. Beyond high school, you have two pathways: higher education and the workforce,” explains Josh. “Now is the time that we have to impart to [young people] any final lessons, and to send them off ready to be the innovative Americans that we all know that they can be.”
Our current moment, with the challenges of the pandemic, offers a unique chance for real change. “This is an extraordinary moment to be given this money when COVID has forced us to stop and rethink the way that the broader education system works,” Josh says. “So how can we leverage that to explore how that might really work for us?”
Make Investments Sustainable and Student-Centered
High schools that “really work” for students would prepare them to pursue a wide range of futures as adaptable, critical thinkers, equipped with deep problem-solving skills as well as basic, practical knowledge.
“I don’t care what students become. It’s what they’re given that matters to me,” Josh says. “They have the right to self-determination, just like any adult does. … I think we as a nation need to make sure that they’re given the tools that they need to become whoever they want to be.”
With ARP funding, we can work at multiple levels to yield those tools for self-determination. We can invest in tangible equipment, durable supplies for classrooms that will serve students today and well into the future—and we can also build larger structures and partnerships that will last even when funding is gone.
“Plant the seed with a [community-based organization],” Josh advises. “Say, Here’s the money that we need to do this now. But in the future, we may not have this. Circumstances may be different. Let’s explore what we can do now, in terms of long-term infrastructure.”
Similarly, expert advice will last beyond ARP funds themselves. Specialized advice, alongside student input, will go a long way in guiding and sustaining growth. “If you convene an expert policy panel now, I guarantee you that their recommendations will last quite a long time,” Josh explains.
Center Student Voice and Power
As important as it is to consider broad strategies for how to use ARP funding, the best information on how to spend funds at a district and school level ultimately comes from getting as local and specific as possible.
In fact, the Department of Education requires states to seek community input from education stakeholders, such as families, educators, and students, for the use of ARP funds. But, just seeking community input is not enough. XQ encourages states and districts to “ be deliberate about setting a vision for high school design and redesign and challenge—and empower—local communities to take the lead in reimagining their high schools. That means focusing on the individual needs of their students, their local and regional economies, and their shared vision for the future.”
“Every school is unique,” explains Josh. “Every student is unique. I come to you from my room in New York City. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I know what a school in Iowa should have on every desk.”
So how should schools and policymakers get student input on how to prioritize ARP spending? The first step is spreading awareness—making sure students and families understand not only what ARP funding is, but how it can have a direct impact on their school experience. Once students know about the funding, we need to create opportunities for students to share direct feedback, ones that give their voices real power.
“I would suggest that, just like in participatory budgeting, you set aside a certain amount of money, perhaps even all of it, and give it to a committee that’s composed of students and educators and parents, all with full voting power, to decide for themselves what they might need in their unique situations,” Josh explains.
Of course, not every student or community member will be able to sit on a committee. It’s up to policymakers and school leaders to get student input in a way that works for their community. In this vein, Josh suggests broad-level canvassing, using simple and straightforward surveys. “Not every student and not every parent will be willing to sit down in front of a panel and say, or, on a panel and say, This is what I need you to spend the money on. But more than enough parents and students, I’m pretty sure, will have the time to circle a letter or two and drop it in an envelope.”
Whatever the method, collecting student input can’t just be superficial. Ultimately, if ARP funding is going to make lasting change, students need to be the ones driving it.
“Don’t just put a blurb on the screen,” Josh urges. “Bring us to testify, bring us to speak, bring us to integrate—because I guarantee you, we will find our ways to burrow in there and make lasting change.”
Learn more about your state’s ARP funding and high school transformation at Choose High School Now.