School districts are now on pace to spend up to $20 billion of their ESSER money on paying teachers and other instructional staff before the relief funding expires in 2024.
Districts are paying teachers to work longer hours, offering retention bonuses and pursuing other strategies that break with tradition to help students recover academically and tackle staff shortages, says “How Pandemic Spending is Reshaping the Teaching Profession,” a new analysis from the FutureEd research think tank at Georgetown University. Some experts, however, have warned K-12 leaders against using relief funds to expand staff because those expenses may not be sustainable when ESSER expires.
Districts have at least two more years (unless they get an extension) to spend billions more ESSER III funds. FutureEd reviewed the COVID-relief spending plans of 5,000 school districts and charter organizations that serve 74% of the nation’s public school students. Researchers paid particular attention to how the nation’s 100 largest school districts intend to use ESSER funds to bolster their instructional force.
FutureEd details seven key ways these districts are using the money to hire more teachers, expand educators’ skills, and use instructional staff more effectively:
1. Expanding staff: About 60% of districts and charter organizations plan to hire new teachers or pay teachers and other staff to provide more hours of instruction. Administrators are hiring new teachers to reduce class sizes and bringing in more math and reading specialists to target interventions.
Maryland’s Howard County Public School System, for example, will spend $1.1 million to add early childhood education and reading specialists over the next three years. And the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County School District in North Carolina is paying $5.8 million to hire approximately 400 “guest teachers” to serve as full-time substitutes, FutureEd’s analysis says.
2. Class size: Here’s what FutureEd discovered about how districts are using ESSER funds to reduce or sustain student-teacher ratios:
- Several districts—including New York City, Long Beach, California; Washoe County, Nevada; and Shelby County, Georgia—are prioritizing reduced class sizes in the primary grades.
- Volusia County Schools and Lee County Schools in Florida are giving stipends to teachers of larger classes.
- Dayton Public Schools (Ohio) is placing two teachers—one for literacy and for math—in every first- through third-grade classroom for the next two years. The district will spend about $10 million a year to hire 96 teachers to staff the initiative.
3. Recruitment: Districts will hire recruitment specialists and hold more in-person and online recruitment events. Some are working with partner universities to mentor student teachers or waiving teacher certification fees. Several states are investing in programs that encourage teacher aides, school support staff or local college students to become teachers. Finally, districts are offering signing bonuses for special education teachers and other hard-to-fill positions.
4. Retaining staff: Many states have raised teacher salaries substantially during the pandemic and some have given out large, one-time “hazard pay” bonuses. Some experts warn, however, that across-the-board bonuses don’t target areas of the greatest need. Polk County Public Schools in Florida, for example, is devoting $3 million to supplement the salaries of teachers who work in high-poverty schools. Houston ISD is giving teachers who agree to remain in the district a $5,000 bonus over three years.
5. Increasing workloads: About one-third of the largest 100 districts are paying teachers more to work extra hours, including before and after school and on weekends. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for instance, will pay teachers $32.7 million to work an extra period per day over the next two years.
6. Improving working conditions: Houston ISD’s “Opportunity Culture” initiative offers teachers $15,000 stipends to become grade-level or subject leaders at their schools while continuing to teach part-time. Orange County Public Schools in Florida is trying to reduce workloads and give teachers more planning time by hiring more algebra and high school English teachers. The School District of Philadelphia, meanwhile, is using ESSER funds to provide teachers with 120 minutes of weekly collaboration time.
7. New skills and knowledge: A majority of the largest districts are expanding professional development in evidence-based instructional approaches, family engagement, and new technology. Many of the largest districts and others are targeting PD in literacy while others are focusing on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care. “Given the one-time nature of the ESSER funds and the looming fiscal cliff, spending on professional development can be a more sustainable approach to support and improve the teacher workforce, ultimately helping to address learning loss,” the report concludes.