May/June 2021

Leadership Letter: Questions from the Balcony about ESSER3

By Thomas E. Bertrand

On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. It provides substantial resources to help schools resume in-person instruction and to address the urgent academic, social and emotional, and mental health needs of our students.

Illinois will receive over $5 billion for K-12 schools as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER3). Of that, 90% will go directly to districts. The Illinois State Board of Education publishes district allocations, along with the process for applying for ESSER3 funds, on its website.

ESSER3 is the largest federal outlay for K-12 education in United States history. This presents an opportunity for boards to think strategically about how to use a substantial increase in federal funding to serve the most vulnerable students. To that end, boards should consider important questions to inform their decision-making.

How much will our district get?
ISBE will release allocations soon, and allocations will be publicly available. Districts will be eligible for substantially more funding than with ESSER1 and ESSER2. The state’s allocation under ESSER3 amounts to roughly 2.5 times more per student than districts received through ESSER2.

What can the new money be used for?
While districts have flexibility regarding how to use the funds, ISBE is encouraging districts to use the funding to increase in-person instructional time for students, particularly those who may be at risk of not being prepared for the next grade level. Examples include expanded summer school, before-school or after-school programs, high-impact tutoring, and an early start to the school year.

Districts must reserve at least 20% of the direct allocation to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions and to ensure that those interventions respond to students’ social, emotional, and academic needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on under-represented student groups.

While the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of students may not be clear, it is substantial. Districts can use ESSER3 funds to increase access to mental health supports and to address students’ social-emotional needs.

How long do districts have to spend the money?
This can get a bit confusing since there are different deadlines for expending ESSER1, ESSER2, and ESSER3 funds. ESSER2 grant applications end on September 30, 2021, and can have expenditures from between March 13, 2020, through September 30, 2023. ISBE intends to release the ESSER3 grant application on July 1, 2021. Districts can use ESSER3 funds for costs dating back to March 13, 2020, and through September 30, 2024.

Could this new federal money just be canceled out by state cuts to funding?

Unlike ESSER1 and ESSER2, ESSER3 appears to restrict states from cuts to funding, particularly for high-poverty districts. With that said, boards should carefully weigh decisions that obligate the district to recurring costs that extend beyond September 30, 2024.

What outcomes do we expect?
It is important to have a plan for how all sources of funds, including ESSER3, will be used to achieve specific outcomes. What metrics will the board use to determine whether outcomes have been achieved? What is the plan for communicating progress to the board and to stakeholders? Once priorities have been established funding should be dedicated to support the effort.

This increase in funding represents an opportunity for districts to mitigate learning loss resulting from the pandemic and to extend access to in-person learning for those students who have been most impacted by the pandemic. A carefully crafted plan aligned with agreed-upon outcomes provides a roadmap to a productive and positive return to in-person learning for every student.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. Resources associated with this column can be accessed via the Journal’s resources link,