Expectations for ESSER: Pressure to show return on investments

Expectations for ESSER: Pressure to show return on investments

Expectations for ESSER: Pressure to show return on investments

This article is the first installment of Expectations for ESSER, a series examining the implications of the federal government’s one-time, historic infusion of flexible funding to triage projects designed to blunt the impact of COVID-19 on schools. For the full series, click here.

Louisiana’s Catahoula Parish has a lot going against it. The population is declining and so too is school enrollment. Catahoula Parish Schools, in fact, was at one point the area’s largest employer but now that honor belongs to a construction company.

“We’re a small, rural area, kind of in the middle of — I call it — ‘no man’s land,'” said Christi Lofton, the school system’s volunteer business manager.

The area’s income levels are so low, all students in the district can receive free breakfast and lunch through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision.

So the $8.9 million — equal to almost half the district’s annual budget — allocated to the 1,000- student Catahoula Parish Schools in federal pandemic emergency relief funding has helped infuse hope, pride and much-needed resources throughout the district’s five schools, Lofton said.

The funding fast-tracked district plans to renovate an entire floor of a school building where the roof had long ago been rain damaged. The district has been able to purchase devices and masks for every single student. And each school will get new HVAC systems, because, “I don’t know how much you know about Louisiana, but it’s hot. It’s very hot,” Lofton said.

The remaining federal relief funding, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, will go to a variety of learning initiatives, professional development, internet connections and more.

“It’s been mind-boggling what we’ve been able to do” with the funds, she said.

Catahoula Parish Schools in Louisiana used ESSER funding to upgrade the lighting in classrooms in the district’s five schools. The new LED lighting replaced fluorescent bulbs.

Permission granted by Christi Lofton


Across the nation, school systems like Catahoula Parish are running through their wish lists — crossing off to-do projects that would have needed bond approvals or years of saving and planning — with a collective $189.5 billion from ESSER money to be spent across five or more school years. 

In some districts, the ESSER funding compares to between one-fourth and one-half of their annual budgets.

The ESSER funding is separated into three different allocations, known as ESSER I, II, and III, with ESSER III — also known as the American Rescue Plan, or ARP, funds — being the largest source of revenue at $121.9 billion. 

For perspective, the entire FY 2022 U.S. Department of Education annual appropriation is $76.4 billion. ESSER funding is the largest one-time federal appropriation to K-12 schools, equal to an additional $3,660 per pupil, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.

ESSER III is largest one-time federal investment in K-12

Added together, ESSER funding equals $189.5 billion.

And while educators say the historic amount of money has freed them to swiftly react to pandemic safety concerns and student learning needs — as well as ignite dormant improvement projects almost overnight — there’s constant pressure to show returns on their investments. 

There’s also growing nervousness that a September 2024 use-it-or-lose-it deadline for making commitments to spend ARP funds will force education leaders to make hasty budget decisions.

Even as administrators are laser-focused on immediate needs for learning recovery and social-emotional supports, the nagging reality is that the money that has done so much to revitalize school systems like Catahoula Parish has a hard stop. 

ESSER highlights from Catahoula Parish Schools

Connecting students to the internet was one of the Louisiana district’s biggest expenditures.

That makes it difficult to plan for impactful and sustainable improvements, some administrators said. The spending deadline also sets the stage for a funding cliff where years of prosperity will be followed by an abrupt return to normal spending levels. 

Protecting their districts from a harsh drop in revenue in two years should be one of school administrators’ main concerns right now, said Marguerite Roza, director of Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

But, Roza fears, “some people are running straight off a cliff.”

A student uses a new science curriculum in 2022 purchased with ESSER funding in Catahoula Parish Schools, Louisiana.

Permission granted by Christi Lofton


‘A once in a many lifetimes situation’

Before discussing the challenges of ESSER planning and spending, however, district leaders are eager to emphasize how vital the additional funds are to school recovery and improvements. One school system aims to complete its 10-year strategic plan with its ESSER money. Another totally eliminated school suspensions. Many districts opened free summer learning and enrichment programs to every student.

Most invested in personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing to make it safer to attend and teach in schools during the public health crisis.

In creating the three funding streams that make up ESSER, Congress gave school systems lots of runway to determine how to spend their allocations. The main directive is that ESSER spending be “an allowable expenditure” in response to the pandemic’s impact on preschool, elementary and secondary school students. 

Ed Department guidance tells school systems that spending should provide equitable opportunities to students. Guidance also directs state education agencies not to limit districts’ formula funds — state revenues that are distributed to adequately and equitably support districts. 

That flexibility has allowed districts to think big, and aim not only for recovery but a reset toward improvement.

That’s the mantra guiding recovery efforts in New York’s White Plains Public Schools, where two years after sending students home to learn remotely because of an infectious and mysterious new virus, the district had a 98% in-person attendance rate this spring, said Superintendent Joseph Ricca.  District and school staff are working more efficiently and collaboratively both within school buildings and with community partners for approaches in responding to pandemic and nonpandemic needs, he said.

ARP highlights from White Plains Public Schools

The New York school district is using a majority of its ARP funding for infrastructure.

The 7,000-student school district received $9.8 million in ARP funding, which equals about 7% of its 2022-23 school year budget of $244.8 million. Other COVID-related funding from ESSER, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and federal grants tally to an additional $16.5 million for the district, said Ann Vaccaro-Tiech, the district’s assistant superintendent for business. 

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