US Education Budget: Focus for School Leadership

While public schools receive the bulk of their funding from state and local sources, the US education budget has historically shored up district budgets with grants to address urgent needs and national priorities. School lunch programs and Title I funding grew out of the 1960s’ War on Poverty, and rapid advances in technology at the close of the twentieth century brought a flood of federal programs designed to bring schools into the digital age. When school safety was pushed to the forefront of the national conversation, the federal government responded with money to increase school security.

The coronavirus pandemic pushed COVID-19 relief to the top of the federal legislative agenda. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act included Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ESSER) funds to augment the US education budget. Most of these funds have been distributed. A third round, ESSER III, is embedded in the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which was signed into law in March 2021. States are currently processing local education agency (LEA) applications for these grants.

The 2020-2021 school year has been challenging. Many parents wanted schools opened for in-person learning, while others feared for their children’s safety and preferred to keep them at home. Teachers, who have been navigating remote learning and hybrid remote/in-person models for the past year, had to balance their own safety with the needs of their students.

Several teacher unions fought reopening plans, fearing that reopening too soon would put educators at risk. However, these fears have largely been allayed with the apparent success of the national vaccination effort. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is calling for a full reopening of schools this fall. To make this happen, school leaders will need to create reopening plans that make the best use of ESSER funds.

What Is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund?

The CARES Act and CRRSA Act were both passed as the virus was spreading. These relief packages focused on enhancing remote learning capabilities, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, sanitation, building air filtration, and personal protective equipment. Allowable uses also included nutrition programs for students who depend on school breakfasts and lunches.

ARP ESSER funds shifted the focus to school reopening. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona emphasized that schools need to address students’ academic loss caused by the disruption in education, as well as social, emotional, and mental health. Disparities highlighted during the pandemic are of particular concern. “Make no mistake,” said Cardona, “we need to make sure this money is going to the students who have been hit hardest, students with disabilities, students of color, students in areas with high community spread where in-person options didn’t come early enough.”

The federal government released funds to the states this spring. A provision of the law allows state education departments to reserve 10% to meet state-wide needs. The National Conference of State Legislatures has developed an online ESSER fund tracker to identify how each state is allocating these reserved funds. Emergency assistance for non-public schools is included in a separate section of the ARP.

The remaining 90% will be allocated to LEAs using Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title I-A formulas. Within thirty days of receiving funds, schools must submit a Return to In-Person Instruction plan, gather public comment, and publish the plan on the district or school’s public website. Funds may be used for activities between March 13, 2020, and September 30, 2024.

Allowable Uses for ESSER III Funds

The law requires that LEAs use 20% of ESSER III funds to address learning loss, but there is a great deal of flexibility in this provision so schools may target needs specific to their student population. Uses include summer school and after-school programs, intensive instruction, assessments, and diagnostics. Funds may also be used to develop integrated support services, such as counseling and social-emotional learning programs.

The remaining funds may be used to upgrade digital devices and expand connectivity capabilities. While data is now showing that surface contamination is not as large a health threat as was believed earlier in the pandemic, the CDC continues to recommend that schools follow sanitation protocols, along with other virus transmission mitigation strategies as outlined by the CDC.

Mitigating Virus Transmission: Current CDC Guidelines

CDC guidelines are evolving. As the 2020-2021 school year ends, middle and high school students are increasingly being vaccinated. NIH immunologist and presidential advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci expects that vaccines for children younger than age twelve will be available by the end of 2021 or early 2022. This leaves primary and intermediate grade students still vulnerable to infection when schools reopen this fall.

The CDC currently recommends schools continue preventative measures practiced over the past year, including:

  • The universal use of masks
  • Physical distancing
  • Handwashing
  • Respiratory etiquette (cover face when sneezing or coughing)
  • Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
  • Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine

Schools should monitor community transmission levels and adjust protocols as necessary. For example, schools in communities with high levels of transmission may need to move sports and extra-curricular activities outdoors. When planning how to allocate ESSER funds, school leaders should consider the costs of following these guidelines and consider new ways to maintain safe schools.

The Best Practices Clearinghouse

School leaders do not need to start from scratch when developing Return to In-Person Learning plans. The US Department of Education has built a new resource that offers proven ways to effectively reopen schools for in-person learning and improve programs that have suffered during the pandemic. The Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse, launched in April, provides actionable resources, local examples, and reopening plan road maps contributed by educators who have successfully brought students back into the classroom. The Clearinghouse is an idea bank of ways to maintain a healthy school environment and provide support for students, families, and the community.

Adopting New Technology for Safer Schools

The goal of ESSER funds is to not only reopen schools safely and make up for learning losses but also to “build back better.” Many technology upgrades may fall within the parameters of allowable uses.

While a return to in-person instruction is a welcome event, schools need to monitor activity in and out of district buildings to maintain distancing protocols, collect information for possible contact tracing, and prevent unauthorized people from entering schools. A secure door access system enables administrators to keep close control over who enters a building. Modern systems enable doors to be locked and unlocked from a remote dashboard. Staff and students, equipped with smart ID cards, may access rooms and areas of the building based on permissions programmed to the individual. An automated Visitor Management system will reduce unnecessary face-to-face interactions and screen out those who pose a threat to school safety.

The legislation behind the ESSER funding emphasizes the need to address students’ well-being, their social and emotional health, along with academics. For students with social-emotional learning deficiencies, a root cause of inappropriate behaviors, an automated behavior management system will facilitate this learning. Data gathered from these systems may be combined with attendance and health records to give teachers, counselors, and administrators a complete picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

The past year presented new challenges for school superintendents, and these challenges continue even as the country is pulling out of the pandemic. The federal government recognizes this and has stepped up with an unprecedented level of funding for LEAs. More may be coming: President Biden’s proposed FY 2022 US Education Budget calls for a sharp increase in K-12 spending. While Congress will whittle away at the President’s figures, the proposal demonstrates the administration’s priorities. With the possibility of increased funding, school leaders need to think in terms of broad system overhauls, rather than piecemeal, stop-gap measures, as they plan.

The ScholarChip team is dedicated to helping school leaders maximize the safety and well-being of students and the entire school community.

Want to talk more about creating an actionable plan for these funds to help close the learning loss and make reopening effective and safe? Feel free to chat with one of our specialists today!