As ESSER Spending Ramps Up, Experts Offer Tips to Make Sure Students Truly Benefit, Now and Later
Advice from Education Leaders Includes Emphasis on Equity, Do’s and Don’ts for Procurement, Avoiding a ‘Fiscal Cliff’ and Ensuring Sustainability
- By Kristal Kuykendall
Last fall, education headlines across the country expressed alarm at the slow pace at which the nation’s K–12 schools were spending their $190 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.
As reported by Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab and its ESSER spending tracker, “most districts underspent at the front end, leaving the bulk of the cash for the final two years of the ESSER spending period.”
The first deadline for ESSER I has already passed; ESSER II funds totaling about $55 billion must be allocated by Sept. 30, 2023 and spent by Jan. 31, 2024. ESSER III funds, totaling $122 billion from the American Rescue Plan, must be allocated by Sept. 30, 2024 and spent by Jan. 31, 2025. (ED officials have said states can request an extension for liquidating the funds; 12 states have requested and received extensions.)
About 66% of ESSER II funds had been allocated as of early February, according to ED’s ED’s Education Stabilization Fund Transparency Portal; about 25% of the $91 billion in ESSER III funds had been allocated at that time.
For perspective: School districts get about $43 billion annually from the federal government, noted Discovery Education in an ESSER spending guide it published last month. “So, states and districts were provided 3.5 times their annual federal funding in stimulus funding to spend, as well as the annual funding itself,” states the guide, entitled “Innovative, Impactful, and Sustainable Use of Federal Stimulus Funds.”
Now, it seems school districts have been spending those funds much faster this school year: the nation’s K–12 schools “are on track to spend down ESSER funds by the relative deadlines,” Edunomics Director Marguerite Roza, Ph.D., wrote in a recent opinion article for Forbes. As of last month, ESSER funds were being spent at about $5.1 billion per month, according to Edunomics Lab’s tracker.
Discovery Education and several other education organizations have published guides to help district leaders efficiently evaluate — or re-evaluate — their options when making procurement decisions particularly with ESSER funds. Tips on what to look for in a new ed tech solution, budgeting tips to make the most of the time-limited cash influx, and questions to ask about any ESSER-funded program are among those guides, all of which are summarized below.
Meanwhile, Edunomics’ Roza continues calling for a “North Star” for the nation’s public education system: Actual improvements in learning outcomes. In numerous op-eds and blog posts over recent months, Roza calls on education leaders at all levels to improve data collection and analysis and to demand data-driven decision-making, spending on what is actually working to improve learning and leaving the rest behind.
“The concern with slower spending up front was, and has always been: First, is the money being deployed in a way that gets students back on track? And second, are leaders planning ahead so the district isn’t derailed by a fiscal cliff in 2024?” Roza wrote in the recent Forbes piece. “Districts have left themselves little time for onboarding new hires, tweaking programs to ensure they’re working and changing course when they aren’t. And if the chosen interventions don’t do enough to help students, there’s precious little time for a do-over. … As the aid clock runs down, we need to focus not on what is allowed, but on what investments are showing progress for students. District and school leaders must tap data, map and measure progress, and pivot on a dime to switch gears if an investment isn’t impacting learning.”
In the absence of real-time data on student progress — which Roza also suggested every state education department should be implementing especially since getting their own ESSER funds — district leaders can use Edunomics’ “The Grid” worksheet to assess the impact and results from investments.
And as the nation’s school leaders consider how to spend $5 billion per month for the next year and a half or so, some basic principles are shared below, offered as spending guidelines and tips by EdTrust, Discovery Education, Edunomics, and the School Superintendents Association.
Goals and Accountability in ESSER Spending
The short answer: almost anything. The question is more what should they do with the extra cash, and how to do it without creating a so-called “fiscal cliff” — setting themselves up for budget shortfalls and massive cuts when the ESSER program expires.
Discovery Education’s guide noted that the American Rescue Plan Act puts in place some guardrails for how the third round ESSER funds should be spent, but even those are vague.
“For ARP ESSER III, districts must spend at least 20% and states at least 5% on activities to address student learning loss encompassing both academic and non-academic factors,” DE said. “There are additional minimum expenditure requirements at the state level for summer school and after school, but overall, the list of allowable expenditures has 20 broad categories, including any authorized activity under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and other federal programs.”
EdTrust.org, in its October 2022 School District Guide to Advocating for Equity in American Rescue Plan Spending, said that while districts should inform their spending decisions with community input and needs, “an equity-focused, evidence-based approach to supporting students in pandemic recovery” should achieve some or all of the following goals:
Accelerating student learning, including targeted intensive tutoring and expanded learning time
Student, family, and community engagement
Safe and equitable learning environments
Teacher recruitment and retention
Data equity and reporting transparency
For each of these goals, EdTrust’s guide offers lists of questions for school stakeholders to ask before spending decisions are made and afterward, too, on such efforts as intensive tutoring programs, after-school programs or expanded learning time; EdTrust dives deep into what successful tutoring and expanded learning time programs look like and red flags that schools and parents should watch for. The nonprofit similarly offers detailed guidance for district leaders spending ESSER funds on safe and equitable learning environments and on student and community engagement.
EdTrust’s guide also includes detailed recommendations for how school districts should collect, analyze, and share data on their spending efforts and the impact that ESSER funds are having — echoing, to some degree, Roza at Edunomics Lab.
“To be clear, this isn’t a call for more standardized testing. ... At issue here is data that’s useful for teachers, parents and students so they can do their part to drive improvement,” Roza wrote in a recent column in The Hill. “In other sectors, leaders are obsessed with gathering data from their users and processes so they can get better at what they do. We need data collection processes that allow schools to gather information — in real time — on how kids are doing. For example, learning platforms such as Zearn could tell us in the early months of the pandemic, without any additional testing, the harmful effect that remote learning was having on kids’ math progress, especially for the poorest students. It took two years for the system to uncover the devastating impacts that the digital tools surfaced nearly immediately.”
Five Do’s and Don’ts For ESSER Spending and Planning
Roza and Chad Aldeman, a former Department of Education staffer, offered five principles district leaders should follow when spending ESSER funds, and five mistakes to avoid:
Commit to a multiyear spending plan.
Seek targeted investments to increase learning time for students who need it most.
Consider how equitably funds are applied across schools.
Honor the promise to taxpayers to focus on students and relief.
Be transparent and ensure broad participation in spending decisions.
Don’t spend in a way that creates a disruptive fiscal cliff: “Stick with short-term spending commitments to match the short-term nature of the federal money versus locking in spending down the road,” Roza advised. “That means paying stipends for staff who take on extra duties and using contract staff instead of hiring new employees who expect continued employment. For districts with teacher shortages, it means using one-time hiring or retention bonuses targeting just the areas of need (say STEM or special education teachers) instead of raising base pay systemwide.”
Don’t deploy funds inequitably across schools: “One way for districts to ensure spending doesn’t flow inequitably is to deliver fixed amounts per pupil to each school (say $250 for each student plus an extra $100 per low-income or English-learner student),” Roza said.
Don’t sign on to problematic procurement contracts that come back to haunt leaders: “Contracts for (student) services should include measurements for student outcomes or participation rates,” Roza said. “Ensure contracts have measurable outcomes with continued payment hinging on vendors hitting performance targets (and if they don’t, giving districts an out).”
Don’t fail to make sure the school district community sees and values investments: District leaders should clearly communicate what is being purchased with ESSER funds and “the connection between investments and students … (and) how investments are playing out,” Roza advised.
Don’t invest without demonstrating real results for students: “If districts can’t show what they’ve achieved for students, the spending choices are doomed to be judged a failure,” Roza said. “That means measuring student progress will be key. … There’s still time to modify spending decisions that won’t pass muster in the rearview mirror.”
Budget Tips to Avoid a Fiscal Cliff Post-ESSER
Discovery Education’s guide includes the following budgeting tips for districts needing help balancing the demand to spend a lot now and yet be prepared to drastically cut spending back to “normal” annual revenues after ESSER funds expire:
Forward-funding: One viable option — depending on local and state procurement rules — may be forward-funded contracts, or paying for multiple years of a contract on the front end, according to a new guide published by Discovery Education.
Displace and extend: School boards may decide to use pandemic ESSER funds to cover some general expenses recurred annually, allowing that portion of the district’s general revenue to be saved for allocation in later years, Discovery Education’s guide suggested. This move may be feasible (again, depending on local and state rules) because the federal “supplement, not supplant” requirement does not apply to ESSER funds, according to DE. “This approach allows for the time-delimited funds to be used now, while saving non-delimited funds for the future to allow beneﬁcial ESSER practices to extend to ‘normal’ post-ESSER school years,” DE said in its recommendations.
Strategic replacement: Districts may use ESSER funds to purchase or expand newer, more effective instructional technology, network infrastructure, or other needs — and in the process eliminate the ineffective or outdated systems or strategies. Post-ESSER funds, the ESSER-funded strategies or solutions take the place of the abandoned systems in the annual.
Displace and replace: Combining the two previous strategies is “arguably the most difficult approach” but likely to be the most transformative and sustainable long-term, DE said, and would generate the most budgetary ﬂexibility.
Ensuring Ed Tech Spending is Sustainable
“Investments that leave a lasting impact on teachers and students seem the most obvious way to spend ESSER funds wisely, but there are so many spending opportunities it can be overwhelming,” said Discovery Education in its ESSER guide. It recommended the following concrete steps to emphasize sustainability when making procurement decisions:
Choose ed tech partners whose solution(s) includes teacher training and professional development, safe and secure implementation, accountability, increased student engagement and usage, and equitable access.
Develop a replacement cycle of technology devices that spaces out the spending, perhaps with a tiered system that serves at-risk students and those in underserved communities ﬁrst.
Ensure all communities that the schools serve are prioritizing equitable access to the internet, devices, and learning supports.
Identify where savings can occur as a result of ESSER investments. For example, spending more to help students catch up may mean that less could be spent on remediation programs, reducing textbook purchases by using digital curriculum materials offered by many ed tech platforms.
Identify other sources of funds that go beyond 2025. Some ed tech providers may be able to help districts identify an organization or grant program to underwrite funding needs.
Prioritize communication with and buy-in from teachers, students, parents, and school board members. When stakeholders are more engaged in ed tech investments, students’ and families’ participation and usage grows — providing more opportunity for improved learning outcomes. Keep communication open after implementation, DE advised, by periodically surveying staff and students on the technology, whether it is meeting their needs and achieving the district’s long-term goals.
Make Sure District Purchases Will Work Together
Tim Clark, Ed.D., vice president of K–12 programs at 1EdTech and a former digital learning director at Chicago Public Schools, emphasized the importance of including technology leaders when considering technology purchases, to ensure the new technology will work nicely with existing technology.
“As deadlines for ESSER funding get closer, and districts consider what, if any, technology is worth investing in to improve student success, I encourage (district leaders) to have your academic/curriculum teams sit down with your technology teams and really consider some innovative, and interoperable solutions,” said Clark in an email to THE Journal. “I say interoperable, because that will ensure your solutions are easy to implement and use, will provide you with better data in the long run, and are more likely to be sustainable even after the ESSER funds are gone.”
Requiring district ed tech solutions to follow specific open standards makes teachers’ jobs easier, enabling more innovation and flexibility within any given classroom, he explained. With interoperability requirements defined by district curriculum and IT leaders ahead of time, teachers and administrators will know what to look for when considering new ed tech solutions, and they can easily see which technology won’t work within their district’s system or don’t meet data privacy requirements, Clark said.
Interoperability also reduces the IT costs required to implement a new technology or tool, he said. That also gives your technology departments more time and flexibility to find and add new and innovative solutions, instead of saying no, simply because they don’t have the time.
Interoperability also means easier and more secure log-in processes, as many interoperable ed tech tools can be accessed in the same way, reducing the number of log-in credentials each student or staff member has to keep up with.
Clark cited the example of Fayette County Public Schools, in Lexington, Kentucky, where implementation work that used to take months, now only takes days, and students and teachers access everything they need with one simple sign-on.
“This is now allowing the district to investigate tools that will give them a better understanding of their students through assessments, and best practices for protecting teacher and student data,” he said.
Finally, Clark said, choosing interoperable ed tech tools means school and district leaders get more meaningful data and they get it faster than year-end exams — allowing time for interventions to take place in the classroom. Interoperability standards identify different data from different platforms with a common language, so regardless of which app a student is using, the lessons and subjects they’re learning, how quickly they’re learning, or how engaged they are can all be compared alongside parallel data points from other tools.
“Some 1EdTech members leverage that ability to allow students to learn the same subject using different apps, depending on that student’s individual needs,” Clark said. “It can also help districts determine which tools are most effective, and which may need to be reconsidered. Meanwhile, others are tying that data to state educational standards to create roadmaps toward success for each student.”
Regardless of how districts go about spending their ESSER funds, the remaining year and a half is crunch time, and the stakes are higher than ever, according to Roza and Discovery Education President Kelli Campbell.
“It is imperative that remaining ESSER funds be spent on innovative, sustainable investments that meet the significant post-pandemic needs of students and leverage the digital infrastructure school systems built during the pandemic,” Campbell said.