Don’t waste your ESSER funds – 3 tips to get more bang for your buck

Here are three considerations to get the most out of your funds and achieve the biggest impact.
Abbas Manjee is Chief Academic Officer at Kiddom.
Abbas Manjee is Chief Academic Officer at Kiddom.

There are few people that can stretch a dollar further than an educator.  But, even the most fiscally creative districts have been put to the test this year – having to find room in an already stretched budget for 1:1 devices, PPE, new technology tools, new cleaning protocols and more.

With the uncertainties of what exactly the next school year will look like, as vaccine rollouts continue and pressures mount on both educators and students to demonstrate outcomes from the last year, it’s no surprise that many districts are carefully looking at every dollar needed for next year.

Related: ED releases FAQ on allowable uses for spending ESSER, GEER funds

Enter ESSER funds, AKA Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief.

What are the ESSER funds?

Last year, the federal government provided payments to state, local, and tribal governments to help alleviate the impact of the pandemic under the CARES Act fund which, while it allocated some dollars to education, acted more like a “catch-all” for all COVID-19-related initiatives.

Now, the federal government has announced another round of funding, with a portion of funds, $54 billion, allocated specifically for education.  This money will be distributed to state-level Departments of Education (DOEs) that will then distribute money to their state’s schools and districts. It’s estimated that the average school will get about $1K/student, with funding disbursements mirroring the Title I formula. Here are three considerations to get the most out of your funds.

  1. Allocate ESSER funds to the most impactful areas

The ESSER funds are being provided with the intent of addressing unfinished learning (learning loss) from this past school year.  The government recognizes that with the challenges of teaching and learning during the pandemic year, many students have fallen behind, and without an intervention by way of additional funding, teachers can’t be expected to cover the lost ground.

It will be up to schools and districts to decide how best to use these funds, but it’s worth noting that additional funds nearly always come with the expectation of results.  Plan on allocating these funds to programs where concrete results can be achieved.

This will also be a great time to reflect on the district’s specific student population – which students were most impacted by the changes of this last year?  Where is the most unfinished learning left to complete? What kinds of programs will measurably help students?  Taking an honest assessment will help allocate funds to programs and resources that will yield the greatest results.

  1. Avoid the fiscal cliff and seek grant-matching options

One thing that’s important to consider when dealing with one-time funds is avoiding a “fiscal cliff.” When a school or district gets additional budget dollars, it’s tempting to use them to address current funding shortages – hire new staff, add new programs, or buy new tools.

The problem is that these additional funds will not always be a part of the annual operating budget, so when they’re gone, it leaves the school or district in a deficit – with more annual, recurring expenses than they can cover with their budget dollars. They’ve fallen off the cliff.

When thinking about how to use the ESSER funds, be sure to think about avoiding budget hardships down the line – hire contractors instead of full-time staff, make one-time investments instead of annual subscriptions, or prepay for multi-year deals on technology tools that only hit the budget once but provide multi-year benefits.

Another thing to consider is how to give the ESSER funds a multiplying effect. Seek out vendors who offer a Grant Match program, or similar. These programs “match” a certain percentage of grant dollars (ESSER funds qualify!), bringing down the price of the purchase.  Check out grant websites to see which vendors have programs like this or ask your account representative.

  1. Use ESSER funds to support long-term goals

Many districts are coming out of the last year with a renewed sense of what the most immediately addressable issues are – whether that’s equity, outcomes, unfinished learning, or student engagement.

One investment that addresses all of these issues is high quality, digital curriculum, housed in a flexible digital platform where the curriculum can be tied to real-time student data, so teachers don’t have to wait for report cards or testing season to flag areas of improvement for students. While it may be tempting to address short-term problems, consider using your ESSER funds on content and technology that will address the issues of unfinished learning and content loss well into the future.

About Abbas Manjee, Chief Academic Officer at Kiddom. Abbas is a member of the core founding team at Kiddom. Before Kiddom, Abbas taught high school math serving at-risk youth in New York City. He was a founding math teacher and department chair at two alternative high schools.

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