Maximizing ESSER Funding: Are School Districts Investing in Academic Achievement?

ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding is a grant program established by the federal government to support K-12 schools in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program, established under the CARES Act in March 2020, was extended through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. ESSER funding has been distributed to states based on the proportion of Title I funding they received. Each state was then responsible for distributing the funds to local education agencies (LEAs) based on their proportion of Title I funding.

While school districts across the nation were granted the flexibility to use these funds for a variety of purposes, the primary goal was to address the academic impact of the pandemic on students. Although the federal government has tracked fund distribution, it fell short when requiring states to provide measurable data on the direct impact these funds have had on student academic achievement. With a September 2024 deadline looming for districts to exhaust their funding, it remains to be seen whether the monies utilized were used most effectively to increase student academic performance and well-being.

ESSER funding purpose:

The legislation specified that funds could be used for a wide range of purposes, including:

  • Purchasing technology and educational resources
  • Providing mental health services
  • Addressing learning loss
  • Supporting summer learning and afterschool programs
  • Improving school facilities to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

How are school districts using ESSER funding?

School districts across the country have reported using ESSER funding in a variety of ways. Some districts invested in technology to support remote learning, while others hired additional teachers and support staff. Many districts focused on addressing student learning gaps by providing tutoring, summer learning programs, and extended school days.

Some states, however, utilized their funding allocations to support athletics programs, which has sparked controversy. According to an October 6, 2021 report by the Associated Press: “Flush with COVID-19 aid, Schools Steer Funding to Sports,” some districts have reportedly funneled a large part of their funding to athletics projects. The report found a school district in Iowa used $100,000 of their funding to renovate their high school’s athletic weight room, and in Kentucky a district used ESSER money to replace two outdoor tracks. Newsweek reported that a Wisconsin school district received $2 million in pandemic relief money and, “…set most of it aside to cover costs from their current budget, freeing up $1.6 million in local funding that’s being used to build new synthetic turf fields for football, baseball and softball.”

While those schools may claim that funding athletic projects supports students’ physical and mental health, critics disagree, arguing that these projects do not meet the criteria of helping students catch up on learning missed during the pandemic. Newsweek quoted Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who stated, “Every dollar of pandemic relief spent on sports could be used to expand tutoring, reduce class sizes and take other steps to help students who are struggling academically.”

Maximizing ESSER funding for academic achievement:

Evidence supports positive results for schools that have utilized pandemic funding to support academic growth. A September 8, 2022, New York Times story, “American Schools Got a $190 Billion Covid Windfall. Where Is It Going,” reported on measurable results that schools in the state of Tennessee got by utilizing the development of research-driven recommendations released by the state’s education department. In the article, Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s education commissioner outlined two strategies the department focused on to help struggling students catch up. The state developed guidelines for extended learning over the summer and high-dosage tutoring. The parameters included limiting tutor ratios of no more than one to four with sessions lasting at least 30 to 45 minutes each and offered two to three times per week. Through this approach, Tennessee education officials reported that students were able to catch up, and even exceed grade-level expectations in English language arts by 36% in 2022 compared with 29 percent in 2021.

The results have helped make a case for future funding requests for educational programs beyond the ESSER monies allocated from the federal government. The State Legislature passed the Tennessee Investment Student Achievement Act to replace the state’s old formula, which will reportedly fund more money per student and will create a greater transparency on how districts use the funding. Furthermore, the news report stated, “…Gov. Bill Lee has pledged to put $1 billion into the new formula when it takes effect next year, the largest recurring investment in public education in state history.”

Re-focus as ESSER III funding is set to expire:

Looking ahead, ESSER funding will continue to be a critical resource for schools as they work to address the academic impact of the pandemic. The remaining round of ESSER funding, ESSER III, has a deadline of September 2024 in which school districts must deplete their allocations. It is important for districts, especially those with more disadvantaged student populations (those who suffered the most learning loss), to ensure they are focusing spending efforts on programs that will help these students catch up.

In conclusion, ESSER funding is a critical resource for schools as they work to address the academic impact of the pandemic. While these funds can be used for a variety of purposes, it is essential that school districts prioritize academic achievement (what the funds were intendent to be used for), when allocating these resources.