Why ESSER Funding is Your Greatest Opportunity and Your Greatest Risk

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Author: Libba Lyons


As a former district administrator during the Race to the Top era, I learned important lessons about the opportunity and the risks represented by such a large influx of funding. I would like to share some of these lessons with you and offer some words of advice and encouragement.

First, I will briefly describe where the funds come from, what they are for, how your state and district can spend them, and the deadlines for obligating the different funding streams.

Second, I will explain why and how you have a voice in determining how the funds in your district and state will be used.

Finally, I will give you some examples of how you can most effectively apply your ESSER funds to accomplish their fundamental goal – the transformation of education.



Unlike other federal funding sources for schools, the allowable uses of ESSER dollars are nearly unlimited.

This presents an opportunity for all of us to rethink, reform, and rebuild our educational system to equitably meet the needs of all students.

It also brings with it a huge risk that we will avoid the discomfort of change and squander these precious funds on “business as usual.”


We have lots of funding. Now what?

State Education Agencies, school districts, and charter school Local Education Agencies are receiving unprecedented levels of funding.

Known as the Education Stabilization Fund, ESSER I, ESSER II, ARP ESSER, ARP EANS, ARP-HCY, ARP-AIRE, GEER I, GEER II, CARES Act, CRRSA allocations, these resources present both an amazing opportunity and a daunting challenge to those charged with managing them.

Many are still uncertain how to proceed, or how to most effectively spend funds that – in many cases – are two to three times larger than their normal federal funds allocations.


Education Stabilization Fund, ESSER, GEER, CARES, CRSSA, ARP – what do all these terms mean?

The Education Stabilization Fund consists of two programs authorized by the Congress of the United States to help states, schools, and districts overcome impacts on education from the COVID-19 pandemic: the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) program.

The Coronavirus Aide, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act established the ESSER and GEER programs in March 2020 (ESSER I and GEER I).

The Congress appropriated additional funding to these programs through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act in December 2020 (ESSER II and GEER II).

Finally, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act in March 2021 added funds to ESSER. It also supplied funds for Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools (ARP EANS), for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief – Homeless Children and Youth (ARP-HCY), and for American Indian Resilience in Education (ARP-AIRE).

In total, the Congress has allocated nearly $200 billion as emergency resources to support K-12 and postsecondary education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.


What is the difference between ESSER and GEER funds?

Piggy bank wearing glasses next to a calculator, with a classroom blackboard in the background showing question marks. Symbolic of questions about ESSER school funding.

ESSER funds are grants to State Education Agencies (SEAs), who must subgrant at least 90 percent of these funds to Local Education Agencies (LEAs – public school districts and charter schools that are Local Education Agencies). SEAs may not dictate to LEAs how they can use their ESSER funds (United States Department of Education, 2021a), however the SEA is responsible for ensuring that LEA expenditures of ESSER funds are allowable under federal regulations.
GEER funds are grants to the Governors of each state. Governors can subgrant these funds to LEAs, Institutions of Higher Education (colleges and universities), and other education-related entities. Governors have broad discretion in how GEER funds may be used by their subgrantees.


What are the ARP EANS, ARP-HCY, and ARP-AIRE funds for, and who can use them?

ARP EANS is a $2.75 billion fund to provide services or assistance to non-public schools most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic with a high percentage of low-income students. The Department of Education is awarding funds to the Governors of each state with approved applications. Non-public schools may apply for services and assistance from the SEA under this program. They do not, however, receive grant funds. This document answers questions about ARP EANS funding: https://oese.ed.gov/files/2021/03/Final-EANS-FAQ-2.0-3.19.21.pdf. The deadline for Governors to apply for these funds is September 2021.

ARP-HCY is an $800 million fund that may be used by SEAs and LEAs to identify homeless children and youth, provide them with wrap-around services, and enable homeless children and youth to attend and fully participate in school. State Education Agencies may award these grants in accordance with Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to LEAs as continuing Education of Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) subgrantees, under a new grant competition, or as a supplement to new EHCY awards made on or after July 1, 2021. Please see this link for more information: https://oese.ed.gov/offices/american-rescue-plan/american-rescue-plan-elementary-secondary-school-emergency-relief-homeless-children-youth-arp-hcy/frequently-asked-arp-hcy-questions-and-answers/

ARP-AIRE provides $20 million to Tribal Education Agencies for direct services to Indian children and youth, as well as their teachers. Authorized services are detailed under ESSA, section 6121(c), Special Programs and Projects to Improve Educational Opportunities for Indian Children.


How are ESSER Funds different from other federal funding?

Most federal education funding awarded to the states is either restricted for specific populations of students, such as Title I, Part A (low-income students) or IDEA (students with disabilities), or for specific uses, such as Title II, Part A (professional development and support of teachers and school leaders).

ESSER funding, however, may be used with all populations of students to address a wide variety of needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The only restriction in the use of ESSER funds appears in the ARP ESSER legislation. It requires LEAs to reserve at least 20 percent of ARP ESSER funds to address learning loss by implementing evidence-based interventions that respond to students’ social, emotional, and academic needs. It emphasizes the importance of meeting the needs of historically underserved student subgroups – minority racial and ethnic groups, children from low-income families, children with disabilities, English Learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children and youth in foster care.


What are allowable uses of ESSER funds?

Elementary-aged Black female student smiling and holding a clipboard and pencil, seated in front of a classroom blackboard showing math problems. Symbolic of ESSER school funding allowable uses.

The range of uses for ESSER funds is very broad. By law, ESSER funds may be used for any activity authorized by:

  • the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (the Every Student Succeeds Act)
  • the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act
  • the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006

To give you a few examples, ESSER funds may be used for preparedness and response efforts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean educational facilities, providing meals to students during long-term closures of schools, purchasing technology for students, and services and outreach to address the unique needs of historically underserved student populations who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The U. S. Secretary of Education has made it clear, however, that the primary goal of ESSER is to transform education – to create a system that raises the achievement of all students. Neither Congress nor the Department of Education has dictated what this should look like. The responsibility for that rests with states, districts and schools, and the communities they serve.


What are the deadlines to spend ESSER money?

ESSER I (CARES Act) – September 30, 2021

ESSER II (CRRSA) – September 30, 2022

ARP ESSER – September 30, 2023


Who has a say in how ESSER funds are used?

As a condition of receiving ARP ESSER funds, SEAs must submit a plan for the use of these funds.

The SEA must consult with education and public stakeholders, including students, families, civil rights organizations, disability rights organizations, school administrators, superintendents, educators, and educator associations, and incorporate their recommendations in the plan (National Archives and Records Administration, 2021).

Similarly, LEAs must consult with education and public stakeholders when developing their plans for the use of ARP ESSER funds.

This includes families, school and district administrators, principals, school staff, teachers, teachers’ unions, civil rights organizations, and representatives of the interests of students with disabilities, English Learners, children experiencing homelessness, children in foster care, migratory children, children who are incarcerated, and other underserved populations of students (National Archives and Records Administration, 2021).

Both SEAs and LEAs must continue to involve all stakeholders in ongoing evaluation and revisions of the plan.

Bottom line: You have a say in how ESSER funds are invested. This is an opportunity to advocate for equity and access to high-quality, rigorous education for every child.

School and district leaders have a voice in the ESSER funding vision and plan. Will you advocate for equity, access, and academic rigor for every child? – Libba Lyons via https://www.learningsciences.com/blog/ESSER-Funding Click To Tweet

A cautionary tale

Elementary-aged Asian male student with pencil in his hand, looking up at the ceiling as if thinking. Symbolic of ESSER school funding decision-making.

During the recession that began in 2007, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This law appropriated $832 billion in stimulus funding, of which $100 billion was awarded to the states for education to prevent layoffs and support innovation. $4.35 billion was allocated to the Race to the Top (RTT) grant, and $3 billion to the School Improvement Grant (SIG).

In 2016-2017, the United States Department of Education conducted evaluations of the impact of RTT and the SIG on student outcomes.

For RTT, the findings were so mixed that it was impossible to discern any relationship between the student outcomes and the policies and practices supported by that grant (Dragoset et al., 2016).

For the SIG, there were no significant impacts on student math or reading performance, high school graduation, or college enrollment (Dragoset et al., 2017). The reasons for failure of such large investments of funds to improve student outcomes are debatable. But the bottom line is that students derived no discernible benefit from them.

As former administrator of a $22 million RTT grant for a large urban school district, the experience has given me a micro-perspective of some factors that may have contributed to these disappointing results.

When we first learned of RTT, we saw an opportunity to innovate – to really transform education. We organized focus groups of district office, school, and community partners to think creatively about how we could best use those funds to elevate teaching and learning in our schools. We put our vision into our grant plans and were elated when we learned of our award.

But over time, the challenges of implementing this vision and the gravitational pull of expedience and the status quo began to erode the path we had laid. Although the grant funded some essential supports that would not have been otherwise available, in the end it was a shadow of its original intent. From that experience I learned how hard it is to change systems, and how even harder it is to change hearts and minds.

So here we are again, with a much larger amount of federal dollars to invest in improving the educational experience and outcomes for our students. The situation is very different, however. This pandemic has completely disrupted our lives and our schools. Perhaps now we have no choice but to accept this gift of opportunity to rebuild and do the right thing for all our students.

At least, that is my hope.

The pandemic completely disrupted our lives and our schools. Perhaps now we have no choice but to accept this gift of opportunity to rebuild and do the right thing for all our students. – Libba Lyons via… Click To Tweet

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona expressed it beautifully (United States Department of Education, 2021b):

This is a moment in education to boldly address the patterns of inequity that have been pervasive in our schools. This is our moment to ensure that we reopen, reinvest, and reimagine our schools differently and better than ever before. If we go back to how it was, we would be returning to a system where you can predict outcomes based on race and place, where the color of your skin and zip codes are better determinants of outcomes than the actual aptitude of our learners…We have often heard, and maybe even exclaimed ourselves, that education is the great equalizer. Well, now is our chance to prove it. The funding is there, the urgency from the President is there. Are we going to lead through this and come out stronger? Or is the temptation of complacency going to dissipate our call to action?

At LSI, we are answering that call to action. We are working with our partner schools and districts implementing Schools for Rigor and Equity to provide engaging, culturally responsive instruction that lifts all students academically, socially, and emotionally.

As an external manager, we are helping our partner schools exit Comprehensive Support and Improvement designation under state ESSA plans as disadvantaged, culturally, and linguistically diverse children perform at high levels that no one had thought possible.

The time for transformation is now. The resources are there. The children are waiting.

LSI is ready to be your thought partner in realizing your vision of transformation for your schools.

Are you ready to accept the challenge?

WEBINAR on Why ESSER Funding is Your Greatest Opportunity and Your Greatest Risk

Sign up for a free webinar on Why ESSER Funding is Your Greatest Opportunity and Your Greatest Risk with the author Libba Lyons and presenter Micah France (LIVE, August 31, 2021), or watch the webinar recording.

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Dragoset, L., Thomas, J., Herrmann, M., Deke, J., James-Burdumy, S., Graczewski, C., Boyle, A., Tanenbaum, C., Giffin, J., & Upton, R. (2016). Race to the Top: Implementation and relationship to student outcomes (NCEE 2017-4001). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Dragoset, L., Thomas, J., Herrmann, M., Deke, J., James-Burdumy, S., Graczewski, C., Boyle, A., Upton, R., Tanenbaum, C., & Giffin, J. (2017). School improvement grants: Implementation and effectiveness (NCEE 2017-4013). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

National Archives and Records Administration. (2021). American Rescue Plan Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. A rule by the Education Department on 04/22/2021. Federal Register. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/04/22/2021-08359/american-rescue-plan-act-elementary-and-secondary-school-emergency-relief-fund

United States Department of Education. (2021a). Frequently asked questions. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief programs. Governor’s Emergency Education Relief programs. Office of Elementary & Secondary Education. ESSER.GEER_.FAQs_5.26.21_745AM_FINALb0cd6833f6f46e03ba2d97d30aff953260028045f9ef3b18ea602db4b32b1d99.pdf (ed.gov)

United States Department of Education. (2021b). Secretary Cardona’s remarks at the Department of Education’s Equity Summit. United States Department of Education News. https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/secretary-cardonas-remarks-department-educations-equity-summit




About the Author

Libba Lyons

Dr. Merewyn E. (“Libba”) Lyons is a retired officer of the United States Navy and a retired K-12 schoolteacher and administrator. A decorated veteran, Dr. Lyons held high level leadership positions on major Navy staffs and as a commanding officer. In her second career as an educator, she served as a classroom teacher, school administrator, and district executive director of large federally funded grant projects.  She brings to LSI over 40 years of deep experience in leadership, management, and education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Languages and Linguistics from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Regent University, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University.


About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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