The State of Connecticut is leading the pack when it comes to using the latest round of federal education relief funds. That’s according to a new national report that analyzes official plans for spending of education dollars through the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

Across all states and Washington D.C., Connecticut is one of only seven recipients to receive a “green light,” the highest rating on the report. But that doesn’t mean we can rest easy.

“Connecticut: Approved State ARP Plan Analysis”

How our state implements its plan will be key to ensuring that our $1.1 billion share of federal COVID relief funds actually moves the needle for the students most impacted by the pandemic.

The national report, accompanied by a state-level brief, applauds Connecticut’s plan for prioritizing student equity. Particular bright spots include the use of statewide data to inform state and local learning strategies, a commitment to targeting investments to address the needs of students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and providing supports and guidance for districts.

The report stresses that Connecticut’s strategies rely on data to understand the impact of the pandemic. For example, the COVID-19 Ed Research Collaborative is a panel of researchers from our state’s leading universities that will study pandemic-related projects through the CT Department of Education. It will work closely with local leaders to create actionable data reports around student achievement, and track the impact of the state’s investments.

Connecticut also stands out for its efforts to address the academic implications of lost instructional time. For instance, the report cites ARP funding earmarked for the Learner Engagement and Attendance Project (LEAP) and Right to Read programs. LEAP is designed to re-engage students after over a year of minimal in-person instruction and is targeted to the state’s highest-need districts, while “Right to Read” is an evidence-based approach to early literacy that will be implemented statewide.

In addition, Connecticut is highlighted for supporting local districts through endeavors like the Child Well-Being Taskforce, which seeks to connect districts with resources related to supporting the whole-child.

This ARP plan should generate pride among State leaders and stakeholders. It builds upon a now-long record of meaningful leadership commitments throughout the pandemic.

After all, then-Commissioner Miguel Cardona committed the state to returning to standardized assessments —following a brief hiatus during the initial 2020 closures; this prescient decision set the state up for data-based decision-making. Gov. Ned Lamont later led Connecticut to become the first state to bridge the digital divide—an up-front investment that left the state’s schools poised to meet this moment. And even amidst the Omicron surge, the governor has kicked off the year by insisting upon keeping schools open safely and in-person —staking out the position that is most beneficial for kids; it’s thanks to a highly committed educator workforce that we’ve been able to implement that vision, some significant staffing shortages aside.

All of these difficult and important calls were centered around the best interests of the state’s students. It’s no wonder, then, that Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker was able to build upon that leadership to submit such a powerful plan for ARP funding.

So how do we make the most of our “green light” plan? It all comes down to implementation and accountability now—through robust stakeholder engagement, ensuring fiscal equity within districts, and state-level oversight.

Funds can be spent through 2024. Although both the state and district plans are already written, many investment decisions have yet to be finalized. It is still unclear how funds will be allocated within districts or whether the state will track actual expenditures. Will the relief dollars be spent as initially envisioned, or used to bridge other funding gaps? Will they be distributed equitably? And does the state have enough personnel to help districts course-correct?

To understand how districts are using their relief funds in real time, the state must engage local parents and community groups at the front lines of educating Connecticut’s children. It should require districts to demonstrate how their allocations address the pivotal issue of equity and lost learning in order to meet the greatest student needs. And it must develop a clear process to monitor district-level ARP spending and maintain transparency.

Connecticut’s ARP plans for this large federal investment made it worthy of these high marks. Prioritizing implementation will help Connecticut—and most importantly its students—stay the course.

Amy Dowell is the State Director of Education Reform Now CT. Nicholas Munyan-Penney is Senior Policy Analyst for Education Reform Now and a co-author of Driving Towards Equity.