American Rescue Plan can reshape education to give students real-world preparation

American Rescue Plan can reshape education to give students real-world preparation
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Too many students today are not invested in their education, a problem that gets worse the longer they’re in school. A Gallup survey showed that while 75 percent of fifth-graders self-report feeling engaged in school, only 32 percent of eleventh graders feel the same. Meanwhile, just 52 percent of students feel high school prepared them for the workforce.

With an estimated $125 billion from the American Rescue Plan set to flow into our K-12 education system and a total of $350 billion for state programs overall a successful recovery plan must include more engaging learning opportunities that help better prepare youth for careers, postsecondary education and next steps in life.

Deborah Gist, former Rhode Island education commissioner and current school superintendent in Tulsa, Oklahoma said to The 74, “we’re going to be able to grow and expand on [learning outside the school building] more than we would have been able to do before the pandemic…through internships, through apprenticeships, through concurrent learning with higher education and technical schools.”

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She’s right. Work-based learning is a proven method to keep students engaged and inspired by showing them the connection between what they are learning in school and potential careers. These experiences give today’s students the “real-world” connection they crave, offering opportunities to apply learning, develop technical skills, access mentors to build social capital and better chart a path.

Yet, work-based learning is rarely available to high school students. While there are some existing federal laws that incentivize school and employer participation, often it is up to individual states to provide the bulk of the necessary funding and infrastructure. This has led to great disparity in program access and quality, as we recently found in a state-by-state analysis with Bellwether Education Partners.

American Rescue Plan dollars could reduce gaps by helping states expand and enhance work-based learning for high school students. Specifically, funding could:

Ensure equitable access for high-need students

Barriers to work-based learning are higher for students from low-income families, students of color, students in rural areas, English language learners and students with disabilities. Some barriers include affording to participate in unpaid internships, long commutes, lack of transportation and few local employers to offer work-based learning opportunities.     

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States should close these long-standing equity gaps by developing new virtual work-based learning models that eliminate the barriers to place-based experiences, or by looking at state models addressing access barriers.

For example, Illinois provides eligible youth an apprenticeship stipend to cover costs such as tuition for classes, work clothes, or occupation-specific tools. D.C.’s Kids Ride Free program ensures students have transportation to and from school, including work-based learning experiences. Piloting targeted efforts to eliminate barriers would be a worthy use of American Rescue Plan dollars.

Promote diverse employer participation

Employers often cover costs associated with work-based learning, such as student workers’ salaries, transportation, materials and tools, but it can be difficult for smaller businesses to afford start-up costs such as equipment and training. Among employers who do not offer work-based learning opportunities to high school students, almost half (47 percent) we surveyed in 2019 felt funding a program would be difficult.

States often leverage federal and private dollars to offer employers grants or financial incentives like tax credits to help them shoulder work-based learning costs. But often this support is limited to employers in regional high-demand industries or certain types of work-based learning like apprenticeships. American Rescue Plan funding should be used to expand the type of employers and experiences eligible for financial support and provide a short-term grant program to incent a diverse group of employers to set up a work-based learning program.

Establish strong infrastructure

High-quality work-based learning programs need a range of support structures to succeed, from communications that recruit participants and share information among stakeholders, to comprehensive data systems that can track student outcomes long-term, across state lines, and by demographics.

American Rescue Plan funds can help states develop these essential resources and build systems for intermediaries to facilitate strong work-based learning policies and programs.

For example, a communications tool was recently created by Rhode Island, called the Work-Based Learning Navigator to connect employers and students in a virtual environment. And Washington is one of the few states that has a robust system for collecting and disaggregating data for all work-based learning participants. Such systems could be built with the one-time use of funds in the American Rescue Plan.

Because the American Rescue Plan funding is only a one-time infusion, funding must be used strategically to produce the type of real change we have all sought in K-12 education for decades: increased student engagement, meaningful application of learning, critical skill development and preparation for post-secondary education and careers.

Policymakers, employers and schools must commit to piloting programs with American Rescue Plan dollars, building sustainable infrastructure and devoting sufficient funding and resources in the years to come. Let us take this opportunity to reshape our education system to give students what they want and deserve: preparation for a limitless future.

Julie Lammers is the senior vice president of government relations and advocacy at American Student Assistance, the national non-profit working to ensure youth have the tools they need to make informed choices about postsecondary education and career.