The school bells have rung for many districts across the country, and as students across the nation return to the classroom for a new school year, their school, district and state leaders are reckoning with a looming ESSER spending deadline. On Sept. 30, 2024, the unprecedented federal funding designated to remedy pandemic-related learning disruption will come to an end, pushing many high-need districts closer to a fiscal cliff. Because ESSER funds were distributed based on the number of students living in poverty, schools with the highest needs will be hit hardest.
With this deadline rapidly approaching, state education leaders and state legislatures can play a critical role in finding ways to sustain the programming that has effectively supported students of color and students from low-income backgrounds for the past three years—and district leaders can and should advocate for this support.
Facing and mitigating the risks associated with the fiscal cliff requires communities to work together to invest in programs that drive student achievement and support vulnerable student populations. It also requires bold action from state education leaders and state legislatures to ensure that our nation’s most vulnerable student populations—including students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, multilingual learners, and students with disabilities—continue to receive the programming they need to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
ESSER deadline urgency
Time is running out, and it’s time for district and state leaders to take decisive action to continue prioritizing students’ needs beyond the ESSER deadline. Here’s how:
1. Extend Fund Availability Transparently and Inclusively: While the spending deadline at the federal level is approaching, many state legislatures have the power to change laws and regulations at the state level to enable districts to carry forward state and local funds beyond the deadline and accelerate student learning. This would allow districts to prioritize and strategically spend their remaining ESSER funds while saving state and local dollars for future fiscal years.
Equity should be at the forefront of fiscal decision-making now and beyond the ESSER deadline, so it’s particularly important for these elected leaders to invite all relevant stakeholders—educators, administrators, caregivers, students, and advocates—to help shape their next budget and policy choices. It’s especially important for district leaders to prioritize Black and Latino families and families from low-income backgrounds in their decision-making processes to ensure extension strategies best serve these communities.
2. Increase State Revenue to Help Districts Through the Fiscal Cliff: Recent historic increases in public education funding in states such as Michigan and Tennessee prove that policymakers can make a considerable impact on districts’ funding allocations. State legislatures should identify funds within existing revenue streams that they can reallocate to better support districts through the fiscal uncertainty ahead. Raising new revenue to increase state funding can also enable leaders to allocate investments equitably across districts in their state.
3. Assess Districts’ Sustainability Risk: Research has shown that ESSER funds account for anywhere between 4-17% of total revenue, depending on the state. Because of this significant range, states across the country will face varying degrees of fiscal cliff severity in 2024.
State education leaders should identify the districts that will be hit hardest by this impending deadline by assessing those with a combination of a high percentage of ESSER dollars in relation to their overall budget and a large number of high-needs students. District leaders can help this important process by proactively organizing and communicating their data points.
In addition to providing more funding to these districts, advocates and policymakers can help leaders in these areas implement both short-term plans for preparing for change and strategies for fostering long-term sustainability.
4. Help Districts Modify ESSER Plans and Promote Promising Practices: To manage the fiscal cliff effectively, districts need help adjusting their overall ESSER plans to ensure they’re using funds as effectively and equitably as possible. By collaborating directly with district leaders, state education leaders can help evaluate current plans and prepare for changes ahead.
They can also identify and promote promising practices many districts are already putting into action. Northshore School District in Washington, for example, developed eight guiding principles—ranging from regulation compliance to equity-focused actions—to help leaders determine how they will reduce expenditures and increase revenues in the coming years. Incentivizing these and other practices can enable state leaders to facilitate knowledge-sharing across districts in their state.
While the steepness of the upcoming fiscal cliff will vary from district to district, every school—and every student—will no doubt be impacted by the drop. The time is now for district and school leaders to advocate for the support they need from state education leaders and state legislatures. We must ensure that we have the resources necessary to sustain programming that has been effective at aiding vulnerable student populations and remedying unfinished learning.
With these tools and the support of communities and families, state and district leaders can make the right decisions and ensure that all students—especially those who need the most support—receive the proper education that prepares them for college and career advancement.
Qubilah Huddleston is the Ed Trust Policy Lead for Equitable School Funding. Being on the P-12 policy team, Qubilah informs and manages Ed Trust’s policy positions on equitable school funding. She is responsible for analyzing state and federal policy proposals and supporting state partners and advocates in achieving more equitable state funding formulas for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
Ventura Rodriguez is an ERS partner and leads ERS’ State Practice Area. In this role, he supports ERS’ work to enable the design, implementation, and continuous improvement of effective and ambitious state-level policies that create critical enabling conditions for school and system leaders to transform how they use resources (people, time, and money) to support schools and students.