The ESSER Professor: Making the Most of Pandemic Relief Funds
ESSER is the name of the game in COVID-19 education funding. And even though the thousands of pages linked to this legislation seem daunting, there’s no need to worry --we at Edstrumentsare here to be your personal ESSER professor, breaking down the complexities so you know exactly how relief dollars are helping your students get back on track after a year of disruption.
ESSER is short for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. These funds were released in three parts aligning with the three major pandemic legislation bills passed between March 2020 and March 2021.
Similar to the Avengers franchise, each iteration of ESSER was a bigger budget item than its predecESSER (pun intended). At a whopping $122B, The American Rescue (ARP) ESSERwas especially large, and in addition to those funds, ARP included another $350Bfor state and local agencies as well as $7B for special populations and regions. Finally, ESSER distributions were based on historical Title I distributions, with the intent that the highest needs areas get the most funding.
All in all, ESSER funds will unlock $189 billion to support K12 schools weathering the pandemic. While this number of 0s may seem eye-popping to anyone who isn’t Jeff Bezos, the funds are meant to be used over a period of 4 years. Assuming an equal amount spent each year, that $47-48B is actually just a 6% increase over the $739B in annual K-12 spending over the entire term of the grant.
Billions in funding sound nice, but won’t be of much help sitting on a ledger. How are education agencies actually allowed to use these funds? Let’s take a closer look and see!
As you can tell by the graphic below, states give the vast majority of their ESSER funds to districts based on their 2019-2020 share of Title I-A funding (or, for simplicity’s sake, based on how high-needs the districts are).
Once districts receive their American Rescue Plan ESSER funds, they must spend a fifth of them on learning loss and the rest on activities, initiatives, and capital improvements that fit their unique contexts; the needs of a school moving to distance learning in rural Alabama are far different than a special education site in NYC’s district 79, and the flexibility within ESSER reflects that reality.
Crucially, states can use ESSER funds to supplant state and local funds that suffered due to pandemic disruption.
For example, when State A went into lockdown, the lost property and income taxes from stay-at-home orders led to a school district revenue shortfall of 20% from the normal amount (which happens to be a tidy $1 billion). Because they lost $200M in revenue from their usual $1B, State A is now allowed to cut its education budget to $800M and use $200M in ESSER funds to raise the budget back to the normal level. This is not something possible with most other education grants such as Title I, and even with ESSER, the states can only do so up to the amount of their original shortfall. (In other words, ESSER forbids State A from decreasing its education budget more than the 20% of the original shortfall, even if they have enough ESSER funds to cover that larger cut.)
So what should your district do to be the best possible processor of ESSER? Check out part 3 for some frameworks...the specifics are going to vary by your unique needs!
ESSER funds are first and foremost intended to help students make up for lost time in the classroom and for everyone to return safely to school. Investments in new curriculum, pandemic-safe classrooms, and after-school tutoring are all common uses of these funds. We recommend making investments that do not create long-term fiscal cliffs. For example, hiring for positions that are temporary or paying one-time pandemic retention bonuses to staff are more financially prudent options than negotiating long-term, across-the-board raises. These funds also provide great opportunities for districts to try new and innovative learning models that could eventually be adopted more broadly.
The key is deciding which investments add the most value in a district’s unique context and deploying them with extra focus on special populations. Importantly, spending and budgets should be tied to the goals that leaders have for students and staff –goals which should be shaped based on the most significant ways in which they were impacted by the pandemic.
To aid in reporting to both government agencies and community stakeholders, it’s critical to have these investments organized and easily presentable. With this amount of money and children’s futures on the line, school systems can’t afford mistakes, so a web of spreadsheets may not suffice for effective utilization and tracking. Instead, tools like Edstruments allow for easy allocation of multi-year funds like ESSER. Our intuitive user interface allows teams to analyze budgets in a way accessible to all stakeholders --not just seasoned school finance experts.
With the ability to link budgets and expenditures to specific objectives (such as learning loss mitigation) as well as funding sources (like each individual ESSER pool), Edstruments makes it easy for leaders across the organization to have a clear picture of expenditures and revenues. These functions are ideal for keeping track of each ESSER pool (as well as all other funding sources) while also promoting greater collaboration. Edstruments replaces the typical system of having a dozen different spreadsheet trackers to manage all these different pieces of information and connects directly to the existing ERP to pull spending data in real-time. Our aim is to empower leaders to more effectively prepare their sites for equitable in-person learning.
Wise budgeting decisions are key to maximizing the impact that ESSER funds have on students. If your organization wants to see more modern financial management and planning software in action, schedule a demo of Edstruments today --our ESSER Professors’ office hours are open and waiting!