School budget season is upon us, and the challenge this year is more complex and consequential than ever before. That's especially true for districts that were hit hardest by the pandemic—those serving mostly students living in poverty. Most high-poverty districts have 15-40% more than usual to spend in the 18 months before the ESSER funding period ends—some have even more.1
Interviews from our national network of district leaders, along with emerging public data on spending, suggests that districts across the country are in very different places with their spending strategies. Some have successfully invested in new initiatives they’ll be integrating into their multiyear plans. Others have spent on efforts that never got off the ground or are just beginning to bear fruit. A few are still recovering from pandemic chaos and have significant money left to spend. All face the challenge of re-engaging students and increasing the rate of learning not just to "catch back up” to pre-pandemic levels, but to address pre-existing disparities in learning and life outcomes.
These disruptive years have led to stress and exhaustion. But they’ve also resulted in rapid innovation, new education models, expanded community and technology partnerships, and fresh ways of organizing time and staff. With these possibilities at hand, now is the moment to move away from treating ESSER as a separate pot of money and, instead, integrate dollars into comprehensive, long-term plans for staffing, scheduling, partnerships, and learning acceleration.
Here are 10 ways to invest in doable strategies that address urgent needs now and build toward redesigned schooling models that have lasting impact beyond funding deadlines. Click to learn more about each one, and use this as a checklist to evaluate your district’s spending opportunities to build toward a coherent vision and long-term transformation.
Invest in Foundational "Stuff" That Drives Lasting Change
Empowering, challenging curricula and instruction are core to any learning acceleration strategy. They serve as the bedrock upon which other strategies and investments can flourish for long-term transformation. While district leaders across the country are at different stages in creating this foundation, all can find ways to strengthen and spread great instruction, including:
Get more strategies for investing in curricula and instruction with our Guide to Using ESSER Funds for Professional Learning and Collaboration for Teachers.
There’s still time to spend remaining ESSER funds strategically and integrate them with district strategy and spending plans to build toward transformative change. This is especially true for districts in states that enable more flexibility in extending state funding deadlines. States can play a critical role in enabling districts to create strategic spending plans that sustain student supports and new ways of working—especially when federal funds drop off.
With so many possible ways to spend remaining funds, the most strategic district leaders we work with are investing in a smaller number of integrated, research-backed strategies (what we call "big bets") and planning for evolution and sustainability over time.
To make it all happen, leaders will need to make strategic choices, carefully consider necessary tradeoffs, and adopt a continuous improvement mindset that enables them to evaluate and adjust implementation as they go. We already know that some district initiatives won’t work in the way leaders hoped. But district leaders can get out ahead of this inevitability and engage their communities in learning from and evolving their work, rather than declaring promising efforts as failures too quickly. Leaders can’t do it all. But by taking data- and research-backed steps now, they can better support teachers and students—and transform their schooling models for good.
1This estimate was calculated by combining ESSER/American Rescue Plan funding data on district operating budgets for districts with more than 75% of students living in poverty and actual spending data from ERS’ national network of districts that serve, on average, 70% or more economically disadvantaged students.
With the #ESSER deadline on the horizon, we're sharing 10 ways to invest in doable strategies that address urgent needs now and build toward redesigned schooling models that will have a lasting impact. #EduTwitter #EdChat #K12 https://t.co/qoF0UGU591— Education Resource Strategies (@ERStrategies) February 2, 2023
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