In addition to being the largest infusions of federal education aid in history, ESSER funds are unique because of the wide latitude they allow districts in deciding how to spend their awards. Most federal education programs stipulate that states allocate funding for a certain use: to support students living in poverty, for example, like Title I, or those with special needs, like the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). In the case of ESSER funds, these stipulations are remarkably broad.
ESSER III guidelines, for instance, allow districts to spend 80% of their award on any activity or program that would be covered under Title I or IDEA, and they can also choose to spend ESSER III dollars on career and technical education, facilities and sanitation, mental health resources, or emergency response preparedness. The remaining 20% must be spent on mitigating learning loss, but even this narrower parameter allows for a range of options—districts can choose to invest in social/emotional supports or academic interventions, broadly defined. ESSER I and II funds have similarly flexible provisions.
Ample choices means districts can respond to their students’ and schools’ needs without being constrained by federal rules. Most districts spent their first ESSER awards on virtual learning tools and personal protective equipment. After putting substantial sums toward crisis mitigation, districts found a wide variety of ways to support their schools and students with subsequent waves of ESSER funding.
Lifting a Hiring Freeze in NYC
During the pandemic, New York City was forced to scale back its Universal Literacy Initiative as the City instituted a hiring freeze and the district could not hire enough credentialed reading coaches to keep the program running at full capacity. Budget cuts kept the program from procuring supplies and materials. Some coaches left the program, leaving it even more understaffed.
In 2021, the New York City Department of Education received ESSER II and III funding and the City lifted its hiring freeze. The district used some of its ESSER funds to replenish supplies and to hire enough reading coaches to staff the Universal Literacy Initiative. The program is now back to operating at pre-pandemic levels.
Improving Graduation Rates in Atlanta
Atlanta Public Schools is using its ESSER money to launch a number of initiatives. One of these is Frederick Douglass High School’s new Ninth Grade Academy. Douglass’s graduation rates fall well below the district average. By introducing an innovative program that gives ninth grade students their own learning space to help with the transition from middle to high school, Douglass is hoping these students will experience more success as they progress through sophomore through senior years, and that a positive and focused 9th grade experience will help more of them graduate.
Building Outdoor Classrooms in Maine
Portland, Maine wanted to offer options for in-person learning as early and as safely as possible. The district quickly planned an initiative to create outdoor classroom spaces at all of its 17 schools, building on an existing program aimed at building school gardens and facilitating outdoor learning projects. The district now has 156 outdoor classrooms and has created an outdoor learning coordinator position to find ways of incorporating these spaces into curricula and academic activities so that they stay an integral part of the schools even after COVID risks subside. A number of districts are also investing in outdoor spaces, including in San Luis Obispo, CA; Newport, VT; Washington, DC; and Colorado Springs, CO.
Overall, there is a lot of flexibility in how districts can spend ESSER funds, which means that districts can be both nuanced and targeted in addressing schools’ and students’ needs. You can read more about how ESSER funds are allocated, budgeted, and managed on our resource page: Dollars to Dashboards.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nell worked as a middle school Science teacher for 6 years before enrolling as a doctoral student in Education Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies education finance and resource equity. At Allovue, she creates research-informed content highlighting current issues in education finance.