After a lengthy submission and approval process, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have now had their American Rescue Plan spending proposals approved, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Florida, Mississippi, Vermont and Wisconsin were among the last to get the green light.
The approvals will result in the dispersal of the final third, or $41 billion, of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief aid withheld by the federal agency contingent on states’ submissions and department approval. That’s in addition to the two-thirds, or $81 billion, distributed to states in early 2021, for a total of nearly $122 billion in ESSER funds sent to schools nationwide.
Districts and states have until September 30, 2024, to obligate the funds, a timeline that includes the 12-month period provided by the Tydings Amendment for unobligated and unused funds to be carried over to the next fiscal year.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has called the funding “an unprecedented infusion of federal resources,” a sentiment echoed by many others in the education community. However, some school finance experts have warned against unrealistic expectations despite three separate pots of ESSER money provided by federal aid packages.
In total, the lump sum of ESSER funds amounts to just under $4,000 per student to be spent over six fiscal years, or $650 per pupil on average annually, according to Jess Gartner, founder and CEO of Allovue, which specializes in financial solutions and services for school districts. That funding amounts to a 5-6% supplement for K-12 spending, Gartner previously told K-12 Dive.
Still, Cardona has said he expects “transformational change around issues of inequities that have plagued our education system since we've been collecting data, and I'm confident with great resources and great leadership, we're going to get it done."
The department has stressed funds should be used for innovative programs and recently added they should also be used to address staff shortages and teacher compensation.
But district leaders have been hesitant, and in some cases, school finance experts have warned against spending short-term funds on long-term investments like protecting jobs, raising teacher salaries and hiring counselors or other new staff.
Some leaders have also already asked federal lawmakers to sustain high levels of funding going forward.
Many had hoped for the Build Back Better Act to provide another round of funding, but the federal relief legislation hit another roadblock after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said he wouldn’t support the legislation prior to the new year.
“There’s so many voices saying we need to properly resourcing K-12 education — [that] there’s not enough money particularly to help underserved students be successful and thrive,” said Lindsay Dworkin, vice president of policy and advocacy at NWEA.
Shortly following passage of the American Rescue Plan, however, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said recurring funding was unlikely. In addition, education leaders would have to show lawmakers — some of whom Scott said were skeptical of additional funding — that investments made now have “made a difference” for them to consider sustaining current funds.
However, seeing return on current investments and getting to full academic recovery will be a multi-year undertaking. “While student achievement and even student growth are important measures, they can be a little lagging,” Dworkin said. In the meantime, “something's got to work.”
This means districts should pick evidence-based interventions and set up mechanisms to collect data on interim progress in areas like chronic absenteeism and determine whether money spent is working, something Dworkin called “not a small undertaking.”