How to maximize ESSER funding before it’s gone

It is tempting to think of these last ESSER funds as one-time expenditures to address limited, one-time needs. A better way to consider these funds would be as a down payment on sustainable strategies.
Frank Edelblut
Frank Edelblut
Frank Edelblut is the education commissioner of New Hampshire.

In response to the pandemic, the federal government provided unprecedented funding to states, school districts and schools to help them reopen, recover and revitalize. This funding, the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief  Fund, also known as ESSER, was provided in three rounds to the tune of $190 billion. As the end of the third installment of this funding approaches, warnings of a looming fiscal cliff have many school systems thinking defensively, and sometimes negatively.

There is no doubt that post-COVID, states and districts face deepening challenges: catching up on learning loss, chronic absenteeism, mental health challenges, teacher shortages in some regions and more. State and district leaders are also evaluating what specific expenditures are working and what could be more effective in addressing pressing issues. This driving focus on effectiveness is paired with a need to re-imagine the future of education. Simply recreating the systems and procedures that existed before the pandemic will likely be a recipe for stagnation.

One key question about ESSER that I often hear when speaking with school leaders in my state is, “How much ESSER funding remains?” According to the U.S. Department of Education, nationally there is about $53 billion to obligate by September 2024.

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It is tempting to think of these last ESSER funds as one-time expenditures to address limited, one-time needs. A better way to consider these funds would be as a down payment on a tenable strategy that could be sustained by state and local resources, other federal funds or a combination thereof. With creativity and courage, a K12 leader can invest in solutions that provide lasting and significant benefits.

While everyone acknowledges the negative effect of COVID on student academic outcomes, as well as mental health, COVID made these declines worse. But it didn’t cause them. As states and school districts consider how to use their remaining ESSER funds, they have a unique opportunity to address immediate and long-term needs exacerbated by the pandemic.

ESSER can address multiple needs

At the top of the list is addressing learning loss through implementing or expanding evidence-based educational interventions. There are many other, complementary strategies and investments that should be high priority because they address multiple critical needs.

By strategically investing ESSER funds for initiatives focused on student engagement and combating chronic absenteeism, states and school districts can create more supportive and engaging learning environments that encourage regular attendance, participation and success. We know that students learn best when they are engaged with hands-on, project-based learning and hae access to state-of-the-art digital resources that nurture student curiosity and drive learning.

In New Hampshire, we have provided Discovery Education’s K-12 platform to all educators, at no cost, which has sparked curiosity among students and created a passion to study and explore current events. Engaging classrooms that motivate students to attend school regularly is also a priority that all educators can support.

In the Granite State, we have worked to provide flexible learning options by utilizing ESSER funds to provide 24/7, one-on-one tutoring for every student in grades 4-12. We also launched a Leaning Into Literacy Initiative that aims to create literacy champions and advance reading skills among our youth through the Lexia LETRS program.

And, we implemented an attendance recovery program call ENGAGE New Hampshire, which is designed to stabilize and improve student attendance and academic performance. Beyond the classroom, we also spearheaded ReKINDling Curiosity, a program that allows every student to attend summer camp in New Hampshire. We’re thinking outside of the box to use ESSER funds in a way that will help children reset and grow.

Engagement and outcomes

States throughout the nation are using ESSER funds in similar ways that are both unique and encouraging to address missed learning and decreased social engagement. These efforts have been sincere and purposeful, but our work is not yet done. More programs and services are available to support America’s educators and students in new and unique ways.

We have learned that workforce partnerships and collaboration with businesses and post-secondary institutions can go a long way in preparing students for a bright future. Understanding the need to prepare students for successful careers and help meet the needs of the future labor market, New Hampshire used ESSER funds to implement a Work As Learning program that provides secondary students with paid, work-based learning opportunities by matching learner wages.

There are also endless opportunities to enhance technology and digital literacy programs to prepare students for the evolving digital workplace while addressing immediate challenges and laying the groundwork for long-term improvements in critical STEM areas.

By strategically using ESSER funds to support numerous initiatives, states can help ensure that students’ educational experiences are more accessible, engaging and effective, and better prepare them for the demands of the future economy, contributing to individual success and broader economic growth.

Knowing that the needs of each region vary, states and districts need to use these funds strategically while focusing on thoughtful expenditures that address immediate needs and build a more resilient, equitable and effective education system for the future.

What worked in New Hampshire may not work everywhere, but I hope ESSER funds are being used nationwide to augment and improve student engagement and student outcomes. In this final hour, now is the time to step up, amplify our resources and enhance educational opportunities everywhere.

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