School systems across the nation are continuing to face a unique challenge: effectively distributing the influx of education funding that came with the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). Yet headline after headline places much of the blame on schools themselves for their spending struggles, arguing that they are too slow to distribute the billions of dollars they received from ESSER. But what’s going on behind the scenes is more complex than many recent reports lead us to believe.

Before districts spend their pandemic aid, they must submit a plan to their state education department outlining how they will allocate and leverage the influx of funds. These reports demonstrate that schools are struggling to design plans with investments in programs, resources, and initiatives that measurably move the needle for students. However, there are also legitimate reasons behind that struggle that need to be explored.

  1. Historical Inequities Hurt Planning and Talent Initiatives: Many public school districts receiving ESSER funding are historically underfunded relative to student need. As a result, long before the pandemic, these districts have had the unjust burden of trying to attract and retain top teacher talent into high stakes education and care circumstances without the ability to offer commensurate teacher pay and wraparound support services. This injustice was only exacerbated when districts sought more staff with ESSER funding in a competitive labor market. Moreso, these districts have become accustomed to the mindset of doing more with less by prioritizing limited resources that don’t adequately meet the needs of all students. Shifting from this scarcity mindset requires both adequate time and proper training, neither of which were provided in any type of intentional, consistent way. This funding is thus an opportunity and challenge to build a new muscle, albeit on a long-neglected playing field.
  2. Decision Risks with Funding That’s Not Recurring: Districts are experiencing pressure to spend quickly and also produce strong results. This leaves little time to  think strategically about how to allocate these funds to maximize their impact. Any strategic leader recognizes the danger of allocating one-time funds for recurring operating costs, such as teachers’ salaries or instructional positions. If district leaders come to rely on this surplus of funds, they will be confronted with a deficit if the money isn’t available in the next year or two. With this context, many leaders struggled to identify the best course of action with the funds.
  3. Navigating the Day to Day: While the pandemic caused educators to feel burnout, district leaders were faced with retaining staff who felt overworked and underappreciated. These district leaders were not only navigating pandemic-era schooling, but were also focused on preventing a mass exodus of teachers leaving the profession due to stress.  In any given month, week, or single day, these same leaders were taking in new information and having to make quick, high-stakes decisions about closing schools, supporting remote learning, shifting masking, quarantine, and vaccination policies, communicating effectively with parents, and addressing learning loss and trauma. As schools reopened, many have seen unprecedented enrollment declines – making planning for student needs uncertain and the funding expected to be received, lower than anticipated. With so many high-priority decisions taking precedence, school systems used the funding in unanticipated ways, at varying paces, and in some cases, as a replacement for funding they had anticipated for a higher number of students.

Now we’re faced with a critical question: Where do we go from here?

The challenges we’re seeing with spending only reinforce the larger challenges of chronic underfunding relative to student needs. As a one-time investment with little infrastructure to support effective spending, the challenges with ESSER are our window into how we might solve systemic problems. If the funding did exist in a reliable, equitable, sustained way, our schools furthest from success would begin to thrive, student mobility would begin to stabilize, and there would be no limit to the positive impact we could make for the next generation.