Apr 09 2021

What K–12 Leaders Should Know When Spending Federal Funds

School districts will receive more money from the government this year, and they should be prepared to use it strategically.

Since March 2020, the federal government has provided roughly $190 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. The passing of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 on March 11 marks the third designation of federal funding K–12 schools have seen during the pandemic.

The newest stimulus package allocates the most money to fund K–12 education since the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act last March and the subsequent Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act in December. The CARES Act provided more than $13 billion to the ESSER Fund, and the CRRSA Act added $54.3 billion to supplemental ESSER funding, known as ESSER II.

INSIDER EXCLUSIVE: This guide breaks down the federal funding opportunities for K–12 schools.

ESSER III, the $122.7 billion allocated to K–12 education in the American Rescue Plan Act, is nearly 10 times the amount that schools received at the same time last year. This funding, however, also comes with the most guidelines and restrictions for spending. School districts have to meet certain reopening criteria and use at least 20 percent of the funds to combat learning loss.

Federal education grant programs have a history of complicated rules and timelines, as noted in this American Enterprise Institute report. The ESSER funds are proving to be no exception. Already, schools are worried about spending their stimulus money intelligently. Here is how K–12 leaders can be sure they are using their federal funding correctly and getting the most out of it.

How Can Schools Meet the Criteria of the Newest Funding Influx?

The money allocated to K­–12 schools in the American Rescue Plan Act is intended to help districts safely reopen their doors. As of March 1, four states ordered schools to open and six had ordered schools to partially reopen or open school for select grades, according to data compiled by Education Week. This leaves 41 states with no government mandates in effect.

To receive funding, schools must show they have a plan to bring students back, in some capacity, for in-person learning. While many schools may already have a return-to-school plan, those without one should consider talking to a business services provider with educational strategists who can help them formulate a plan. An experienced educator can share experiences working with other districts and leadership to develop a plan to share with constituents — an important step in helping school districts achieve funding eligibility.

Another requirement for K–12 schools to receive federal funding is that 20 percent of the money must be spent on programs that counter learning loss. Many schools can achieve this by putting the money toward tutoring or summer school programs, but there are also creative ways to address learning loss while also ensuring the best return on investment.

DIVE DEEPER: How technology can help schools address learning loss.

How Schools Can Maximize Their Federal Funds

The ESSER III funding is distributed first to the state governments, and schools can expect to begin receiving it in increments in May. The funding from this legislation must be spent by September 2023, so district leaders should develop a long-term plan for using it.

For the 20 percent of funding intended for addressing learning loss, educators should consider solutions that offer long-term results to get the most out of their spending. Data analytics programs, like BrightBytes, are great investments. These programs can show all student data — such as grades, test scores, GPA and attendance — on a dashboard. This allows educators to see where learning loss occurs and which students it affects most. The dashboard saves teachers and IT teams from having to manually add all of this data to spreadsheets and makes it actionable. To combat learning loss, educators have to know where it exists, and data analytics programs can help them do that.

Other creative options are tools such as interactive whiteboards. Teachers in hybrid classrooms see engagement drop when students lose interest in lectures and classwork. Interactive whiteboards increase engagement. As such, investing in technology like the Promethean ActivPanel can be considered a strategy to prevent learning loss.

Because the funding should be used to help bring students back into the classroom, district leaders could consider spending federal dollars on furniture. With upgrades to the classroom, schools can provide students with their own spaces, which meets federal requirements to aid reopening and helps students learn more effectively.

Other improvements can be made to the school building as well, such as wider hallways or improved airflow. Increasing security with updated cameras can allow schools to conduct more accurate contact tracing and to maintain safety after the pandemic.

As part of a long-term plan, schools can also spend ESSER funds on Wi-Fi 6 to update their network infrastructure. Over the next few years, districts can then be sure all of their new devices and technologies are compatible with Wi-Fi 6, instead of having to make the switch and replace everything simultaneously down the line.

EXPLORE: Modernize your school's network with new infrastructure solutions.

This article is part of the “ConnectIT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology” series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.

[title]Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology

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