A state education agency or state legislature may not limit a school district's use of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief formula funds or limit districts' access or spending of the funds, according to a 61-page FAQ released by the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday.
While the ESSER funds give districts broad flexibility for how to spend the emergency money approved by Congress since March 2020, investments should respond to the impacts COVID-19 had on PK-12 students, such as the recovery of lost instructional time, digital equity and upgrades for safe school buildings, the FAQ said.
Education leaders are trying to distribute nearly $200 billion in state and local education relief funding in a swift and responsible manner while avoiding waste and funding cliffs.
The FAQ — which addresses ESSER I and II, the Governor's Emergency Education Relief I and II, and American Rescue Plan funds (sometimes referred to as ESSER III) — provides details on how funding can help specific subgroups of students, including students with disabilities, preschoolers and high school seniors. It also explains how states can make subgrants to local education agencies, as well as the timelines and flow of funds from states to districts.
That's been a focus of local school administrators as they work to coordinate federal relief, federal annual allocations, and state and local funding in order to plan balanced budgets, while at the same time recognizing the urgency of making strategic investments in supports for students and staff.
Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Texas' Dallas Independent School District, told K-12 Dive recently his district will use ARP funds to expand academic programming in the district's lowest-performing schools.
Some local school administrators said they've had difficulty accessing ESSER I and II funding, with some questioning whether states will supplant local budgets rather than supplementing them.
The Education Department FAQ says while ESSER and GEER funds do not have supplement or supplant requirements, states cannot substantially reduce their support for K-12 or higher education unless they've been granted a waiver by the department.
The FAQ also clarifies that while ESSER I funds do not need to be obligated before school systems make spending promises for ESSER II and ARP, each has a different period of funding availability.
The APR also has a maintenance of equity provision that prohibits districts from reducing the combined state and local funding for high-poverty schools that exceeds the total reduction in district funding. The Education Department is expected to release more guidance on maintenance of equity soon.