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The impending deadline represents a moment to recall the magnitude of federal ESSER funds and where the program stands.

The clock is ticking on ESSER funds

The impending deadline represents a moment to recall the magnitude of the program and where it stands

Key points:

Superintendents in the middle of the budget-setting process need to be aware: with the ESSER Funds soon to go away, reporting, supplementing, and storytelling their pandemic-related expenses will be key for longterm student success. 

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund was one of the biggest education gambles ever taken by the federal government.

In theory, the funds had three main priorities: helping students get back to their desks, helping schools avoid massive layoffs of teachers and support personnel, and helping schools deal with the residual impacts of the closure. 

For the districts, however, this sort of financial windfall was unprecedented. The Houston Independent School District, for example, with an annual general fund budget of roughly $2.2 billion, received over $1.2 billion in ESSER funds over three years that it was expected to use before the September 2024 deadline. Los Angeles Unified School District, with an annual budget of $12.9 billion, received approximately $4.2 billion over three years; Toledo (OH) Public Schools with an annual budget of $385.3 million received about $194.4 million over three years. 

On an incredibly short timeline, school districts would have to allocate millions of dollars they didn’t usually have access to–and do so in a way that would help them adjust to a reality with which no one was familiar. 

Now, as the deadline for spending these funds draws near and districts debate their annual budgets, education leaders need to take a moment to fully prepare for life post-ESSER Fund. 

Taking stock of what worked, what didn’t work, and figuring out how to tell that story will be a critical job for superintendents to help lawmakers and policy experts understand the results of this historic education experiment. 

Almost every district will need to rethink at least part of its budget for the coming year. While education officials were always aware that there would be a timeline imposed on these funds, not every district could find a way to spend millions of dollars through a series of one-time expenses like technology or cleaning supplies. 

Holistic wrap-around services that could help students not just with their academic performance, but with their mental health and out-of-school life, became major parts of how ESSER funds were spent. Many districts spent the bulk of ESSER funds on recurring costs, like hiring additional social workers and tutors and increasing pay for teachers and administrators.

States spent over $4..2 billion on tutors and accelerated learning programs, for example, that helped to lessen the gaps in students’ learning. It wasn’t a perfect solution–districts knew that funding for these programs would dry up by the end of 2024–but it worked in many places. 

While student learning loss remains high, ESSER funds lessened the impacts of school closures on student learning. But with the program ending, and based on evidence observed from working with school districts across the country, the issue for district officials now is twofold. 

First, they are required by their state department of education and the U.S. Department of Education to report out how these funds were spent. Certainly, academically-focused programs are easy enough to explain and justify, but there are districts that will have a much tougher job, having spent funds in ways that are less clearly tied to student success. 

This isn’t to say that these districts did anything wrong–in the middle of the pandemic, it was difficult to say what would be needed and what wouldn’t. Effective superintendents, however, will have an answer when the question invariably comes, and an ability to storytell around their thought process and its ultimate impact on student achievement. 

Second, they’re going to have to figure out how to adjust their budgets so as to not create a funding cliff for certain programs. It’s inevitable that there will be some programs that will cease to exist when the ESSER Fund dries up–this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, districts need to look at which programs were especially effective and should think about how they can keep those programs funded. 

These two parts of the ESSER Fund wrap-up should happen in partnership with one another; the education budget gap that’s created in the wake of ESSER will undoubtedly spur conversations about education funding in the future, and superintendents have the opportunity to make their voices heard–if they can provide the data as to what sorts of programs worked as well as what challenges they faced. 

The ability to demonstrate an initiative or program’s return on investment will help to ensure that we don’t merely return to the pre-pandemic status quo, and instead can utilize the learnings and benefits that students have received over the last three years to build a better education system. 

It’s not something that will happen by itself. Lawmakers need the push by educators to offer more freedom and flexibility in education funds, as well as to increase what dollars are available.

The lessons from the ESSER Fund will reverberate in the education world for years to come, so district leaders need to move to shape future perceptions and priorities now. 

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