As we approach September 2024, the education community is bracing for the expiration of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. There’s a growing narrative that this marks a significant funding cut for schools. In places like Cleveland, this framing has been front and center.
Nobody likes to lose money. And if schools were facing steep budget cuts due to an unexpected loss of funding, this take would be understandable. But that’s not the case with pandemic relief dollars. ESSER funds have always been temporary. It’s right there in the name—these were emergency relief funds.
ESSER was the U.S. government’s swift response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a lifeline thrown to schools grappling with the herculean task of continuing education amid closures, remote learning challenges, and myriad health concerns. This funding was explicitly temporary, a bridge to help schools navigate the treacherous waters of a global pandemic and its immediate aftermath, not a permanent augmentation to their annual budgets. Schools were repeatedly and wisely advised to spend the dollars on non-recurring expenses to avoid creating financial cliffs when the funding inevitably expired.
And yet, it appears this advice went unheeded in many communities.
Analysts and advocates alike now argue that the cessation of ESSER funds will leave schools in the lurch, creating gaping holes in their budgets that they insist must be filled. For districts like Columbus City Schools, which used ESSER dollars for recurring expenses, including hiring more than 600 full-time staff–despite clear warnings to the contrary—this is undoubtedly the case. And unfortunately, taxpayers in these districts will likely be called upon to open their pocketbooks and fill the void. In some districts, like Cleveland, where philanthropic support previously being directed to projects identified by students has been repurposed to narrow the gap, the “solutions” will be even more disheartening.
It didn’t have to be this way. And if local leaders hadn’t purposely ignored the temporary nature of these funds, it wouldn’t have been. There is, quite frankly, no excuse for it. Choosing to direct relief funding toward permanent and recurring expenses is like using a one-time tax refund on a car down payment that you can’t afford only to be left scrambling when the regular monthly payments kick in.
And yet, it’s important not to forget that these funds served an important public purpose. First, ESSER dollars were a stabilization mechanism, helping to prevent catastrophic educational and operational disruptions during the pandemic. Second, they provided resources for innovation, enabling schools to experiment with remote learning technologies and hybrid educational models. Third, they empowered schools to adapt to an environment where health considerations had become just as critical as educational outcomes. And, finally, a portion were to be used to help students catch up academically.
From this perspective, it’s clear that ESSER funds have already achieved much of what they were intended to do. Schools have been stabilized. Innovations have been integrated into daily operations. Adaptations to the “new normal” of the post-pandemic world have already been made. Schools are arguably in a better position to face future challenges than they were pre-pandemic, thanks in large part to the temporary boost provided by ESSER. Of course, all is not rosy. Both nationally and in Ohio, despite some academic recovery, pandemic learning loss—especially for the most disadvantaged students—remains.
The upcoming expiration of ESSER funds signals a crucible moment. District and school leaders must assess which pandemic-era innovations—tutoring, additional social and emotional support, afterschool programming, etc.—are worth maintaining, and at what cost. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate budgets, prioritize spending, and ensure that the gains made during the pandemic are not lost, but rather integrated into a sustainable financial structure.
For their part, policymakers must independently determine which pandemic-era interventions most impacted student learning and whether there are promising ESSER-era expenditures that should become a regular part of state funding formulas. At the same time, state leaders should be prepared to address the budget cut framing that will inevitably occur this fall. The expiration of temporary federal funds is not a credible argument to malign state school funding investments—no matter how loudly some folks might say otherwise.
The end of ESSER funding should not be viewed as a crisis but as an expected return to a pre-pandemic state. It’s a moment to take stock, to learn from our experiences, and to move forward with a clearer understanding of what our schools need to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Let’s not be alarmist about the expiration of temporary funds. Instead, let’s focus on building a robust and sustainable education system for the future.