Susan Gentz, blog author, is the founder of BSG Strategies and an education policy expert working to educate district leaders on funding, flexibility, and opportunities for innovation in state and federal policy.
As the obligation deadline for the first rounds of Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund (GEER) looms less than six months away with a substantial amount of funds still available, it appears that district leaders are hesitant to spend in certain ways.
The Brookings Institute observed that, “with a use-it-or-lose-it expiration date of September 2024 for these funds, the math speaks for itself: To spend the remaining funds, most districts need to up the pace at which money goes out the door each month.” Adding to that was a recent article from Education Week that showed some of the complications slowing purchases down, such as paperwork, strict regulations for spending the dollars, slow reimbursements, and in some states if there is one open application, another one cannot be submitted.
It can also be hard to spend the dollars when the expenses are recurring, but there is a mentality to shift how we think about the stimulus dollars.
Think of GEER and ESSER dollars as a typical grant program
It can be easy to think of the stimulus funds as one time funds. In the larger picture they are, but how many other federal grant programs exist to pilot new ideas and programs? Many! In fact, the U.S. Department of Education just announced $65 million for the Supporting Effective Educator Development grant, which is a three year grant. These grant programs are not much different from ESSER or GEER in that respect. (ESSER I- 2022, ESSER II- 2023 ESSER III-2024) While other grants run around 5 years, there is still a great opportunity to think of these dollars as cohesively as possible.
When the funds were first allocated, certainly districts were trying to figure out what students and teachers needed in the here and now. Now that things have become slightly more predictable, there is a real opportunity to view these funds as a grant program to pilot strategies and programs that have perhaps been long talked about, but the funding was not available to do it.
This will turn some plans from a bit piecemeal to a comprehensive plan. It is important to use the dollars in a way that aligns with your district strategic plan. That strategic plan may have shifted a bit since the start of the pandemic, but the plan for the dollars should really align with your district mission and vision. Thinking about the dollars like a grant that has been awarded for three years can help with planning, identifying evidenced-based interventions, and implementing new learning pathways with fidelity.
This also means investing in people now is critical
Many districts have used the stimulus funds to hire new people. With the 2022 obligation date coming so soon, that doesn’t seem like the appropriate focus now, as it takes time, and that’s not something that there is a lot of. Instead, districts should use these dollars for professional development opportunities for current employees. If enrollment is down, it might be time to invest in some online learning professional development or blended learning opportunities now that almost every student has access to a device.
The funds are “One-Time Spends” is not a reason to leave them on the table
If ESSER and GEER dollars are not allocated to districts, they will go back to the federal government. It’s hard to think back to 2020 when everything was so uncertain, and everything was an emergency. Now that the emergency scenarios for the most part have been addressed, it’s time to use what’s left of the stimulus funds to create real lasting change, and that means taking risks and not looking at these funds as a one-and-done, but a way to start on the pathway to meet students where they are in their learning- no matter where that is after the past two years. These funds can make a difference, and should not be left unspent because they are not going to come again. They should be spent on the boldest of plans to reach every student.
StrongMind qualifies for GEER and ESSER funding in a number of ways, including:
- Professional development for online, hybrid, and blended learning
- Summer school for grades 6-12
- Equipping students with tools to stay emotionally well with StrongMinded SEL
- Accelerating learning and combatting learning loss for students who fell behind during the pandemic with digital curriculum