Education Funding Explainer

3 Steps to Keep Tutoring Going When ESSER Money Runs Out

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 28, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of a dollar sign falling over a cliff.
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Schools can expect to lose more than $1,200 per student next September, thanks to falling enrollment and the end of federal COVID-relief aid.

Experts say administrators need to start planning now to sustain the tutoring, mental health, and other interventions started during the pandemic. Districts have a little more than a year to commit the last of three rounds of aid from the $190.5 billion dedicated in the Elementary and Secondary Schools Relief Fund to help students regain their academic momentum after pandemic disruptions.

The Education Trust estimates that when districts hit ESSER’s “funding cliff” at the end of next September, the average 850-student high school, for example, could be out more than $1 million.

“It is not enough to spend down ESSER funds,” says Nicholas Munyan-Penney, Ed Trust’s assistant director of P-12 policy, in a statement. “This historic aid must be spent well on sustainable programs and resources that are meeting outcome goals and ultimately benefiting students—particularly those with the highest needs—in the classroom for years to come.”

Here are three ways districts can plan to sustain pandemic-era education interventions beyond the funding cliff:

1. Consider ‘braiding’ funding

In new school finance guide released on Thursday, Accelerate, a national nonprofit initiative to increase high-quality tutoring in schools, laid out ways that districts can braid federal funding, such as Title II grants for teacher quality and Title I grants for students in poverty, to continue to support education interventions that were started during the pandemic.

“Overall, it’s been clear to us that states and districts have strong intentions of continuing tutoring in a long-term way in a post-ESSER universe,” said Kevin Huffman, the founding CEO of Accelerate.

“But I’ve seen that sometimes, states and districts simply don’t know what they’re allowed to spend money on,” he continued, “and so people can become pretty conservative in how they think about allocating pots of money. And so you wind up in a sort of cruise control where people continue to do things the way they’ve always done them.”

Districts often try to pay for each program with a single grant dedicated to that kind of intervention, Huffman noted, such as launching a high-dosage tutoring program using ESSER funds earmarked for that purpose. While money targeted for disadvantaged students cannot be used to pay for a universal, districtwide tutoring program, districts legally can “braid” funding streams without running afoul of rules requiring them to use federal money to supplement, rather than supplant, local education spending.
For example, the guide notes that a district could use Title II grants to train teachers and paraprofessionals in evidence-based tutoring strategies and content knowledge, or combine Title I and supplemental state and local money to support tutoring programs at high-poverty and other schools.

2. Track who’s actually served

To convince taxpayers or private foundations to support an initiative, districts have to show that it’s working to boost students’ academic achievement. But the best intervention won’t do much if students don’t participate in it.
Ed Trust found many districts don’t track which students participate in programs like tutoring or summer school or how often they attend. Collecting such participation data can help administrators understand how a program or intervention fits into the district’s overall education targets, and whether it’s reaching the students it’s intended to serve. As an example, Ed Trust researchers pointed to Nashville, where the school system collects weekly data from tutors and students on participation, academic progress, and social-emotional learning during high-dosage tutoring sessions. The district has been using the data to engage families and the wider community on both the effectiveness of the programs and the need for students and families to be involved.

These data can also help districts prioritize funding streams to support different groups of students, according to Nakia Towns, Accelerate’s chief program officer. For example, districts can use McKinney-Vento grants for homeless students to provide tutoring targeting students in shelters, or special education grants to increase interventions for students with disabilities.

“If you target support for particular students based on identified needs—in particular, let’s say IDEA funding for students with an IEP—that gives the district the opportunity to really think about directing that funding in a way prioritizes those student needs,” Towns said.

3. Partner to boost early education participation

Initial research suggests that the earliest grades have seen the biggest drops in public school enrollment since the pandemic. In part, that’s because birth rates overall are falling, and there are 250,000 fewer school-age children now than before the pandemic.
But groups like the National Institute for Early Education Research also find that districts aren’t doing enough to get the youngest students to school. Less than 1 in 5 eligible 3-year-olds and a little more than 2 in 5 eligible 4-year-olds participate in preschool education, which both provides a foundation for school readiness and a pipeline for students into the K-12 system.

The institute, along with Ed Trust, and others have advised school districts to partner with local community groups and early childhood education providers to identify young children and their families for education services as early as possible.

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