States and districts have almost $122 billion coming their way from the American Recovery Program's Elementary and School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) fund. Decisions on how to spend the money must be made quickly, because the ESSER funding timeline is fast, and student needs are substantial. Theoretically, the best way to determine how to spend the funds is relatively straightforward. In practice, though, it may feel more challenging. ESSER funds are new, so administrators might have questions about what is allowed, especially considering that a broader range of possibilities is permitted under ESSER when compared to other federal teaching programs.
The $122 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP ESSER) may be the third round of ESSER funding, which totals $189.5 billion in most. The first round (ESSER 1) involved $13 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and also the second (ESSER 2) was roughly $54 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. In most three rounds, 90 percent of the money have to go to school districts, which have broad discretion over how to spend the funds. Districts must spend a minimum of 20 % of ARP ESSER funds to deal with learning loss through evidence-based interventions.
ESSER funds not invested in districts are kept by states as \”state-reserve\” funds. States can spend ESSER 1 and 2 state-reserve funds on emergency needs to address issues related to coronavirus (and a small amount on administrative expenses). ARP ESSER state-reserve money is susceptible to specific spending requirements. In the ARP ESSER state-reserve, states must spend 7 percent from the state's total ARP ESSER allocation for evidence-based activities: Five percent to address learning loss, 1 % for summer enrichment, and 1 percent for comprehensive after-school programs. States may spend the rest of the ARP ESSER state-reserve funds on emergency must address issues related to coronavirus (along with a small amount on administrative expenses).
Before states and districts can understand what can be done under ESSER, they first have to comprehend the program's rules, including timing and permissible spending options. ESSER can support many activities traditional U.S. Department of Education grant programs cannot, and, most important, misunderstandings about existing programs could shape ESSER implementation in ways that limit its potential.
States and districts have a limited time to invest ESSER funds, and understanding these timelines is vital for making decisions about which types of activities to support so when.
Each round of ESSER money features its own \”period of availability.\” This means, briefly, that ESSER funds are only able to purchase work performed in that period, contracts entered into during that period, or certain activities carried out in that period. These are referred to as \”obligations,\” that is a technical term under federal law.
Administrators come with an extra year to invest the 3 rounds of ESSER money beyond what is designed in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and ARP because of a law outside of ESSER called the General Education Provisions Act. Which means ESSER 1 is available for obligation until September 30, 2022, ESSER 2 until September 30, 2023, and ARP ESSER until September 30, 2024. ESSER funds should be liquidated within 120 calendar days following the end of every applicable obligation deadline.
States possess a narrower window to make some important spending decisions, however. States have one year in the date they received each ESSER grant to select whether or not to award state-reserve funds with other entities through grants and contracts in order to spend funds directly.
ESSER differs from traditional U.S. Department of Teaching programs in 2 important ways. First, unlike many U.S. Department of Education programs which are restricted to certain students (like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for college students with disabilities) or schools (like Title I for schools with certain poverty levels), ESSER can benefit any or all students, staff, and schools. This means states and districts can invest in systemwide initiatives to equitably improve outcomes for all students, target funds to students with specific needs, or do both. Second, ESSER supports activities that some traditional programs cannot, like core instruction, facilities upgrades, and construction.
Taken together, what this means is states and districts have to think differently about ESSER spending. For example, in general, federal education funds cannot be employed for districtwide high-quality core curricula. This limitation does not apply to ESSER, however, plus some states already are taking advantage of this flexibility. The Tennessee Department of Education is applying ESSER along with other U.S. Department of Education funds for its statewide Read 360 initiative, which includes tutoring and online supports to help develop systematic foundational literacy skills, high-quality phonics-based instructional materials, along with other resources to support strong reading instruction. The Nebraska Department of Education is using ESSER funds to supply statewide access to high-quality math instructional materials.
States and districts may also use ESSER funds for school facility and infrastructure improvements to lessen health risks, mental health supports for students and staff, extending learning time or reorganizing the college day to accelerate learning, extending broadband and device access, and much more.
For as many spending options as ESSER offers, though, but that will affect state and local spending choices. Chief of these may be the many federal administrative regulations that apply to ESSER, such as federal procurement rules districts are required to follow when purchasing services or goods with ESSER money, federal rules for construction, federally funded employee compensation, and more. These rules are manageable, but states and districts might be sensitive to the methods they complicate certain spending choices.
Even though ESSER isn't susceptible to exactly the same kinds of constraints as other U.S. Department of Teaching programs, misunderstandings about those programs could end as barriers to ESSER innovation.
Even though ESSER funds are given to states and districts based on Title I allocations, for instance, ESSER funds are not susceptible to Title I's spending rules-a point that is confusing to many.
Long-held misunderstandings about traditional U.S. Department of Education programs-particularly the two largest, people with Disabilities Education Act and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act-could also limit ESSER spending in unexpected ways, which can be more significant. Some state and district leaders mistakenly believe that an IDEA-funded service for college students with disabilities cannot be presented to other students through another funding source. Some also believe that any service sent to both students with and without disabilities can't be considered a special-education service, it doesn't matter how it is funded. Neither of those beliefs is true, however they will make some districts reluctant to use ESSER funds in innovative ways.
One district considered using ESSER funds to expand using occupational therapists in its elementary schools to aid students' social and emotional needs after the return to in-person learning. Leaders in this district, however, were concerned that, because some students with disabilities receive occupational therapy as a special-education service, they couldn't offer services to non-disabled students without running afoul of federal special-education laws. This is not correct, but the district's equivocation shows how misunderstandings about existing programs could inadvertently incentivize things as they are and limit ESSER's potential for innovation.
How, then, can ESSER funds be spent in a way that makes sense for every district and allows for innovation? First, states and districts should determine local needs and identify some potential approaches to meeting those needs. States and districts then need to do their research. Those approaches which are infeasible or that policy doesn't permit should be eliminated; the requirements of ESSER do constrain these decisions but eliminate surprisingly few options. Finally, spending should be prioritized in cost-effective ways.
ESSER is designed to permit various kinds of spending, and there's not one \”right\” choice that applies everywhere. To maneuver beyond simply identifying needs and towards determining the easiest method to address them, states and districts should think about multiple ways of address each plausible issue, instead of starting with one favored candidate. The purpose here isn't to seek out one permissible silver bullet, but to develop a robust set of alternatives to consider. Therefore, it is important to solicit and think about a diverse selection of perspectives about needs.
Many analyses concentrate on how student outcomes vary across demographic groups. For more actionable results, districts might consider how student outcomes differ with access to school-based resources, like experienced teachers, enriched instructional offerings, or counseling staff.
With a list at the ready, leaders should begin to gather info on each option. Now is the time to answer two big questions. First, what can it decide to try implement this strategy well? Many strategies are evaluated in a smaller scale than leaders may envision, so they should consider whether they can implement at their desired scale. Space, transportation, staffing, scheduling, and technology are all required and really should be included in cost calculations, as well as the resources that are offered but would be diverted using their company uses, like staff time.
Timing of spending in addition to total costs should be thought about. This really is straightforward for one-time costs, like a single year of summer school or extended learning time. But for changes that would reverberate into future budgeting, what will happen, instructionally and contractually, when the ESSER funds run out-especially for districts with particularly large ESSER allocations? This is a great reason to mirror not just on which something totally new districts would like to acquire, but also how existing spending patterns are working out. Are there less effective practices taking up resources that, with time, might be freed up for brand new uses?
If the strategy seems feasible, leaders can proceed to the 2nd big research question: what can happen when the strategy was implemented well? What this means is considering evidence based on what's happened elsewhere, with an eye to how convincing and relevant it is. Considering how likely the outcomes result from the strategy requires thinking through a counterfactual scenario.
Many studies compare test scores at the start of the school year with scores at the conclusion and implicitly or explicitly attribute all of that growth over the year to the use of a specific curriculum or intervention, but a better approach is always to compare test score changes during the period of the year in settings using different interventions. This gets closer to approximating a counterfactual outcome: how did test scores change fall to spring with, say, one math curriculum in position versus another? Ideally, research takes care of the \”selection problem,\” or why different schools choose to use different interventions, by introducing variation that's random, or close to it, where interventions are utilized.
Some options simply can't work, either as their implementation requirements are infeasible inside a given context, or because federal law (and sometimes state regulations or policy) preclude them. Generally for ESSER, though, getting good information on what is permissible is likely to rule options in rather than out.
What constitutes a strategy permissible when it comes to ESSER's evidence requirements, which affect the required set-aside spending categories described above for states and districts? All of these use the Every Student Succeeds Act's meaning of evidence. ESSA has four \”tiers\” of evidence but, with regards to understanding ESSER, all that you should understand is its most flexible option. Carrie Conaway has described this fourth tier as ESSA's \”hidden gem.\” In her own words, it applies to \”programs and practices that are informed by research and seem reasonably likely to succeed.\” Being informed by research is different than to be the subject of research. A district could adopt a brand new core reading curriculum that includes elements research has recognized as essential for helping students learn how to read to exchange a current curriculum that's lacking them. This really is okay under ESSER, even if that specific new curriculum isn't within the The things that work Clearinghouse.
ESSA's numbered tiers imply a hierarchy, however the technical aspects of research that define the tiers determine just a fraction from the practical significance of research findings. For instance, many districts are especially interested in resources to assist students with disabilities and English learners, to whom the past year has been particularly bleak instructionally. Yet the research base at the highest tiers of evidence on what works for these groups is especially weak. This doesn't mean districts should leave behind their needs and values. Instead, they should understand and embrace the broad look at evidence permitted under the law.
With any luck, at least one good option has survived to this point. Leaders can use the study they've assembled to think about how effective each option is likely to be alongside your buck. This step may seem obvious as it pertains in this sequence, but frequently, the sources consulted won't even mention costs.
It's true that this process will take more than running the very best contender or two with the What Works Clearinghouse or EdReports.org-which is just doing a fraction from the \”do your research\” step and nothing else. Still, perfect doesn't have to be the enemy of the good here: a light, quick form of this framework can help states and districts make better ESSER funding decisions.