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.
5 ways to use ESSER funds to create cleaner environments
What’s keeping districts from spending COVID relief funding?
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