In the last two years, an unprecedented increase in funding has flooded into schools around the country courtesy of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) package. While ESSER’s primary intent was to help mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on schools and students, it may also be illuminating a much bigger truth.
What if the lesson we are supposed to learn from ESSER isn’t about the power of one-time relief or struggles to spend it, but instead about the necessity of an increased, recurring investment in our schools that educate those who have been historically underserved?
The first two rounds of federal ESSER funds are posing challenges for the 6,988 school leaders who must allocate the dollars, a recent report from the Association of School Business Officials finds. The reasons aren’t as simple as one might think. These challenges are directly connected to the chronic underfunding of our schools across the country — especially those in underserved communities — which is an issue with implications far beyond ESSER funding, according to a July 2022 report from the Economic Policy Institute.
First, the primary challenge faced by school districts was that this was an entirely new opportunity for many of them. Many public school districts receiving ESSER funding are historically underfunded relative to student need. They are rarely, if ever, faced with the problem of having extra money to spend. Shifting away from a mindset of scarcity takes training and time — none of which they were given. Everything from their budgeting processes, to their prioritization of resources, to their strategic planning is framed around the question of: how do we do more with less? When new resources suddenly become available, district leaders don’t have the experience or infrastructure to plan for that money and spend it quickly.
On top of that, there were real questions around the nature of the funding itself and the parameters in which the money must be spent. ESSER funds are finite. Many leaders rightfully felt wary of allocating these one-time, non-recurring funds to long-term initiatives or fixed expenses, such as reducing class size or salaries, for fear of running into significant deficits down the road. Combine that concern with a pandemic landscape that was evolving daily, significant learning recovery needs, teacher shortages, and enrollment declines — it’s no wonder that school districts struggled to make the best use of these funds.
Some of these challenges existed in districts that have been chronically underfunded long before COVID-19; challenges that were painfully exacerbated the last few years. These districts have the unjust burden of attracting and retaining top teacher talent into high-stakes education and care circumstances without the ability to offer commensurate teacher pay and wraparound support services. This injustice was only exacerbated when districts sought more staff with ESSER funding in a competitive labor market. Economically stable school districts are not grappling with the same high levels of staff recruitment and retention challenges, alongside student mobility, student needs, and enrollment fluctuation pressures. When it’s uncertain how many students you’ll have, what their needs will be, or who you will be able to recruit to work in your building, how can you possibly envision and budget for a long-term strategy? When viewed through this lens, it’s entirely understandable that the data is showing challenges with effective ESSER spending.
And yet, my fear is that these legitimate challenges may open up a dangerous conversation about whether or not our public school systems, particularly those serving high-need students, would benefit from increased funding. I am terrified that policymakers will come to the conclusion that ESSER spending has shown that more money doesn’t need to be part of the equation to closing achievement gaps.
That argument could not be more foolhardy. If ESSER is proving anything to us, it’s that many of the spending challenges reinforce the larger challenge of chronic underfunding, especially relative to student needs. What we are seeing is proof that sustained, increased funding matters if you want to develop the ability to use it effectively and invest in long-term, systematic solutions that create a lasting impact.
This will not be an easy or simple change to make. The federal government would need to reinvigorate its push to make permanent and substantial increases in recurring Title I funds for schools. While this would undoubtedly face an uphill political battle, doing so would alleviate the challenges created by ESSER’s one-time nature and allow school systems to consider the kind of long-term investments necessary to make measurable change.
Simultaneously, states must begin to invest the time and resources to build the knowledge and skills necessary to spend increased funding. They likewise must be unafraid of the political challenge of pursuing adequate funding, which at the state level often entails undoing a deeply ingrained school funding formula that relies on property taxes. And they must leverage data, both to assess the current gaps in funding and to determine what their ideal funding would look like.
The fact remains that eliminating achievement gaps that have been forged over decades of systematic disinvestment necessitates more money for our most historically underserved. We need to look carefully at what ESSER spending has taught us. It’s not that more money doesn’t matter but rather increasing our investments in the long-term is the only real way to allow for the necessary training, planning, and implementation to occur. That is what will truly make a difference for our students. A one-time drop in the bucket was never going to solve a chronic problem. ESSER gave us a head start in understanding the work necessary to make good use of adequate funds. The real lesson to be learned from ESSER is that we must double down on our pursuit of both equity and adequacy in school funding for those historically underserved in ways that are long-term, stable, and sustainable.
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