3 Questions to Help You Spend Your District's ESSER Funds

Note: Originally published on March 25, 2022, the following content has been updated to reflect recent ESSER funding guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education.

Since March 2020, Congress has earmarked upwards of $190 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act to help schools address the challenges caused by COVID-19, leaving many public school districts with something that, truthfully, they might not be entirely used to: money.

Updated ARP ESSER Funding Guidelines

On September 18, 2023, the U.S. Department of Education announced an extension on the use of ARP ESSER funds for State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs). SEAs and LEAs can now request flexibile spending up to 14 months beyond the January 28, 2025 deadline or until late March 2026, either for themselves and/or their subgrantees.

Federal Funding Timeline

As a fellow public education professional, you know as well as I do that our beloved schools were not without their challenges before the last couple of years. The pandemic exponentially exacerbated generations-old challenges, making them all the more difficult to overcome. As a result, student achievement, school culture, and teacher and administrator retention – to name a few – have been impacted on a large scale. 

The great news, however, is that this isn’t the end of the story! With ESSER funds to spend, district leaders have the opportunity right now to invest in long-term, sustainable solutions for schools, staff, and students. After the past few years of reacting to unforeseen challenges, you now have the opportunity to plan ahead and be proactive for a change. 

"Today you can be inactive, reactive, or proactive. Choose your ‘active’ wisely."

Daren Martin

By spending your ESSER funds on comprehensive, just-right support for educators and students, you’re making the deliberate choice to accelerate student achievement, foster a positive and empowering school culture, and develop happy and motivated educators, no matter the circumstances.

Sounds like proactive leadership to me!

To help you make the most of your ESSER funds, start with these three questions:

1: How can my district spend ESSER funds with fidelity?

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the importance of accountability when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars, something public school educators and leaders are no strangers to. In fact, of all professions except collegiate and professional sports, education is the most “on-display” profession of all, as schools and districts are required to have publicly elected Trustees, monthly Board meetings open to the public, budget hearings, public accounting of all spending, and public accountability of performance. 

Unlike their charter school counterparts – who are not held to the same level of accountability despite also being funded with public dollars – the neighborhood public schools are required to be an open book. 

Because of this, the probability of opposition and criticism about how districts are choosing to spend their ESSER funds is high. It’s no surprise that reports questioning the way public schools are spending these relief dollars are already starting to surface. Critics seem to operate on the premise that the best time to kick someone is when they’re already down, don’t they?

Of course, public school educators would agree that there should be a reckoning for how ESSER funds are spent. For many districts, this will not be an issue as they have spent the money wisely and strategically on priorities like safety, mental health, and building internal capacity. But when it comes to the more abstract – investing in the best support for your people – the door for criticism and judgment swings wide open, making it all the more important to spend your ESSER funds with fidelity.

Knowing full well that criticism will come your way no matter how you spend your ESSER funds, prioritizing investments in the just-right support that your teachers are clamoring for, creating a clear action plan with measurable success criteria, and preparing your district to be fully accountable and transparent, you can feel confident in making the decisions you know are best for the success of your teachers and students.

2: What support do my teachers need right now?

Above all, your teachers don’t just need support – they need the right support. Survey your teachers and staff to help identify their biggest pain points and work from there. Leaders need to be very mindful that this exercise doesn’t lead to more one-size-fits-all professional development trainings, overwhelming “resources,” or burdensome initiatives that cause more harm than good. I can’t assume the unique challenges your district is facing, but I can say for certain that your teachers need the kind of comprehensive support that actually lightens their load. 

When you consider how the Great Resignation continues to strip districts of their best talent who have not received personalized support, those who made the decision early on to invest their ESSER funds in equitably supporting their teachers and leaders are looking quite prophetic. In fact, regarding her decision to leave the profession, one teacher recently said:

“It wasn’t one thing. It was the sum of all these parts for an extended duration. I felt eroded emotionally. My wellness was poor.” 

This sentiment echoes throughout the education world today. Therefore, investing in the tangible by way of job-embedded support and the intangible by way of regularly recognizing and celebrating talent throughout your district is a powerful way to give your teachers what they really need, create a thriving culture, and increase retention. 

RELATED: How to Support Your Exhausted Teachers with Intention & Strategy

3: How will I measure effectiveness?

This question goes hand-in-hand with the first one. Spending your ESSER funds with fidelity means being able to show that your investments are leading to the goals and desired outcomes that your district initially put forth. Working together with your leadership staff and district stakeholders, proactively define success metrics against which you will measure growth and achievement data around things like:

  • Student achievement
  • Educator growth on best practices
  • Community and stakeholder engagement
  • Learner behavior
  • Teacher retention

I like to say that if we don’t have data on it, it didn’t happen. So, once your criteria are established, leveraging a comprehensive coaching, growth documentation, and education analytics tool is key in tracking and reporting out the success of your investment. 

For example, your teachers and instructional coaches can use GroweLab, the all-in-one instructional coaching and talent development platform, to set professional learning goals on role-specific competencies, schedule and document coaching conversations, upload evidence of classroom implementation, earn microcredentials, and more. Tracking this teacher data alongside student testing and achievement data will allow you to measure the effectiveness of your initiatives and report back to your district stakeholders with ease.

RELATED: Choosing the Right Instructional Coaching Model and Platform

Investing in Long-Term, Sustainable Educator Support

Like so many before us, all of us working in public education today followed the path here for a reason. Our reasons might be different, but we’ve got them just the same. And with those reasons came idealized hopes, dreams, and visions for a brighter future. But sometimes on the most difficult, overwhelming days, you find that those visions have blurred and you can’t quite remember why you followed the path you did. Trust me – I’ve been there!

Deciding what to spend your ESSER funds on might feel daunting, but when you remember your vision, your reason, investing in long-term, scalable, sustainable support suddenly becomes the obvious solution. Empowered by accelerated student achievement and educator growth, your teachers, students, and district will have the right support to take on today’s challenges and be ready for those that lie ahead.

Ready to invest in comprehensive, just-right support for your district? Explore partnership with e2L today!