Experts counsel urgency, not panic, in hitting ESSER spending deadlines

Department of Education is telling superintendents that extensions will be available, particularly when it comes to construction projects.
By: | June 3, 2022

It is unlikely that school districts will be forced to return ESSER III funds should they have unspent money as the September 2024 deadline approaches, one expert says. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education is already telling superintendents that extensions will be available, particularly when it comes to construction projects, says Phyllis W. Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a think tank and research organization based at Georgetown University. “My bet is that nobody ends up having to give the money back,” Jordan says. “But I could be wrong. There could be political changes.”

Last month, the Department of Education told superintendents they could apply for up to an 18 month-extension on construction if the funds had been obligated but not yet spent due to supply-chain disruptions or other delays. Still, concerns have emerged from several corners of the K-12 spectrum that districts aren’t spending the COVID relief money fast enough. For some smaller districts, the funding equates to an entire year’s budget or more, Jordan says. Also, districts that have allocated money to programs such as tutoring are having trouble hiring additional personnel.

“The criticism falls into two categories—districts are spending the money on the wrong things and they’re not spending it fast enough,” Jordan says. “But the two are contradictory. If you want the money spent on the right things, you want districts to take time to plan.”

Most districts are using the funds to accelerate learning through tutoring, extended days and after-school and summer programs. But because of canceled and postponed assessments, some schools are only now recognizing the full scope of the learning loss that has occurred over the past three years. This slow reckoning has delayed ESSER spending, says Jessica Swanson, a senior fellow at the Edunomics Lab, a research center focused on K-12 finances.

“The good news is that there is still time to pivot on plans as districts get a better handle on student needs and what has and hasn’t worked,” Swanson says.

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Her organization, which maintains its own ESSER Expenditure Tracker, would like to see more districts sharing data on the impact of initiatives funded by the first two rounds of ESSER. Districts could also be providing more updates as they adjust their recovery plans. Establishing—and publicizing—goals for attendance, graduation rates and other key indicators would also give stakeholders a clearer idea that funds are being spent effectively, says Swanson.

Urgency is essential

The overarching reason for the slow rate of spending may well be that extended school days, tutoring and other recovery initiatives have never been attempted on such a wide scale, says Dan Goldhaber, director of the education-focused CALDER Center at the American Institutes for Research. “It’s probably a lot more difficult to get the money out the door and spent than people thought, given the scale of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Goldhaber says. “I’m not sure how much money has been spent. I’m not sure anybody knows how much money has been spent.”

The 2024 deadline should give schools and researchers ample time to assess the efficacy of the various interventions and make adjustments because academic recovery will be a multi-year process. But not every initiative that educators attempt will achieve its goals—and that’s OK, he says. “We should expect some failure—the history of schooling interventions shows there are more failures than success,” he says. “Hopefully we have the infrastructure in place to learn from those failures.”

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Despite the longer timeline, educators still need to operate with a sense of urgency to move students back to pre-pandemic levels of academic achievement. “The hole most kids are in academically, it’s a pretty deep hole,” Goldhaber says. “I’m a little bit worried that schools may not be conveying that to families and parents with as much urgency as they should.”

The voluntary participation of students is one of the biggest hurdles in the path of the extended learning programs many districts are launching with ESSER funds. He noted that summer school participation in 2021 was not as high as some districts had hoped. “The urgency needs to go beyond the schoolhouse and permeate into families and communities,” he says. “It should be an all-hands-on-deck situation—for much of the recovery, you really need the participation of the people at home.”