3 Tips to Strategically Use ESSER Funds Before Time Runs Out

ESSER funds must all be allocated by September 2024—maximize their impact in your district with these tips before time runs out.

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds played a crucial role in helping schools navigate the challenges brought about by the pandemic, supporting efforts to ensure a safe and effective learning environment for students, and addressing the various impacts on education. Recent FutureEd analysis1 data suggests schools nationwide spent nearly all of their ESSER I money, roughly three-quarters of ESSER II funds, and slightly more than one-third of their ESSER III allocation. That leaves about $90 billion unspent, with the September 2024 deadline approaching fast. 

Although districts continue to spend the remaining funds in the near term, many K‑12 finance leaders are planning for when the federal stimulus funds run out. They’re looking to make strategic investments that benefit their school or district for years to come without incurring unsustainable maintenance and upkeep costs.  

What can ESSER funds be used for?

ESSER I, II, and III funds may be used to modernize certain K‑12 technology systems and infrastructure, enhance cybersecurity, and offer professional learning to teachers and staff. While responding to and recovering from the pandemic are important and well-known uses of the funds, the U.S. Department of Education2 clearly outlines ways this unprecedented federal investment in K‑12 education can make a generational impact.  

In addition to advancing student learning and educational equity, schools and districts can upgrade their systems to improve data analytics and reporting, upgrade data security, and expand professional learning opportunities. Now is the time to act as the deadline to commit ESSER funds is quickly approaching.  

When do ESSER funds expire?

ESSER II funds must be obligated by September 30, 2023. ESSER III funds have an allocation date of September 30, 2024, and must be spent by January 28, 2025. The window to use these funds is closing, but there’s still time to plan and implement significant initiatives before time runs out. The key is planning—K‑12 leaders can use the remaining time to assess their needs, apply for funding, and plan for sustaining their investments into the future. 

Avoiding the post-ESSER fiscal cliff

Only 24% of respondents to LINQ’s recent K‑12 ERP Survey Report prioritize managing the impact of ESSER spending. Recent research from EdWeek3 suggests that more than half of K‑12 districts anticipate that the absence of ESSER funds will reduce spending. Over one-third of respondents also expressed concerns about cuts due to per-pupil funding.  

Despite general optimism, education leaders can benefit from thoughtful contingency planning to mitigate potential risks. Analysts from the Georgetown Center for Education Finance have warned of an impending fiscal cliff4, requiring painful cuts and possibly layoffs:  

ESSER is boosting spending but ends abruptly 9/2024Enrollment declines mean less revenue in the long runInflation, labor scarcity, and new hiring are driving up recruiting commitments.An economic slowdown would affect growth in state revenue.
Most at risk:   Districts using ESSER for recurring financial commitments via budget backfilling, new hires or permanent raises.Most at risk:   Urban districts, Districts closed longer due to COVID, Northern states.Most at risk:   Districts offering permanent raises that are larger than typical (typical is ~102% on top of 3% via step/column increases) and those growing their staff rollsMost at risk:   Districts that are more dependent on state revenue (or in states more affected by economic slowdowns). 

How to strategically use ESSER funds

Though the window for action is narrowing and challenging times may be on the horizon, there is still time to ensure that remaining ESSER funds are strategically allocated toward long-standing challenges and opportunity gaps.  

  1. Emphasize long-term investments

Short-term planning focuses on immediate goals and objectives that can be achieved more quickly, typically within a few weeks or months—filling critical classroom roles as an example. It helps districts respond to changing circumstances, address urgent issues, and capitalize on immediate opportunities.

On the other hand, long-term planning—or thinking beyond ESSER—should be focused on the district’s vision and goals for the future, typically three to five years or more. It helps district leaders align their resources and activities with strategic direction and anticipate potential opportunities and challenges. Long-term planning also helps districts to identify and prioritize their goals and allocate resources effectively.  

2. Balance short-term needs with your greater vision

By carefully considering today’s needs within the context of big-picture planning, districts can balance the need for immediate results with sustainable success. Short-term planning enables districts to respond quickly to environmental changes and stay agile in the face of uncertainty. That’s important, but it ideally won’t make up the bulk of investment plans. Long-term initiatives provide a roadmap and infrastructure for achieving the district’s vision. Together, they create a comprehensive framework for managing resources and activities and help districts achieve sustainable success and resiliency in the long run.  

3. Make data-driven decisions

Analytics and business intelligence ranked comparatively low in priority compared to other pressing challenges among K‑12 finance leaders in LINQ’s recent survey:  

  • Only 11% of respondents report that data analytics/business intelligence is a top priority  
  • Only 13% of K‑12 business professionals plan to increase spending on analytics and business intelligence solutions 

This represents a prime opportunity to shift focus toward better data analytics, enabling informed decision-making that directly serves the day-to-day challenges plaguing districts (like staffing and funding shortages.) 

Whether navigating emergencies like the pandemic or attempting to stabilize district operations during a potentially tumultuous economic environment, insights from and access to real-time data is critical. It allows districts to make informed and timely decisions based on the most up-to-date information—even adjusting course as needed in a board meeting or open forum.  

Real-time data can help districts generate financial reports more quickly and accurately, helping stakeholders to make informed decisions about budgeting, investments, and other financial matters. Districts with real-time data can monitor inventory levels, preventing stockouts, overstocking, and reducing waste.

Act now to modernize K‑12 technology and reach strategic goals

Technology plays a crucial role in realizing short- and longer-term goals. Planning for the future regarding technology investments is essential for districts to stay operationally up to date, avoid unnecessary costs, enhance scalability, prepare for changing staff and student needs, and increase efficiency. By taking a proactive approach to technology investments, districts can position themselves for long-term success. 

1 https://www.future-ed.org/progress-in-spending-federal-k-12-covid-aid-state-by-state/  


3 Bakely, M. (2022, November 2-3) “Welcome and Summit Kickoff: The State of the K‑12 Business”.[Presentation]. EdWeek Market Brief Summit, Dallas, TX. 

4 https://webinars.edweek.org/shop/featured/whats-next-for-k-12-budgets-the-impact-of-enrollment-declines-and-the-end-of-stimulus-funding/