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Innovative Ways States are Using ESSER Funds


More than one year since the passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, plans have been approved in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico for using the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. The plans show states are deploying their share of the resources in unique ways; ramping up high-dosage tutoring and expanding social and emotional learning support. Complicating plans, these investments are being made amidst heightened staffing shortages and historically high inflation.

State policymakers continue to pursue new approaches for this historic investment to overcome the challenges experienced daily by students, teachers, and school leaders. Among the approaches states have used to create and expand programs and services that may otherwise be unavailable, we found that states are using ESSER funds to:


  • Strategically identify the needs of local communities. In developing plans, education agencies were required to meaningfully engage stakeholders and take public input into consideration. Some states have successfully integrated the needs of local communities into their spending. Indiana’s Explore, Engage, and Experience is a competitive grant program that encourages K-12 leaders to partner with local community organizations and employers to design and execute career pathway programs. Applicants must successfully demonstrate how courses or out-of-school learning opportunities align with high-wage, high-demand job opportunities in the local economy.



  • Form new school district partnerships. Rather than going it alone, states can encourage school districts to forge new collaborative relationships. Vermont is using ESSER funds to launch a multi-year grant to implement community schools across the state. Through partnerships with social and health service agencies and providers, schools receiving the grant will embed medical, mental health, social services, and other supports within the school setting. Students will receive increased access to medical, dental, vision, and mental health care along with counseling for housing, transportation, nutrition, immigration, and criminal justice issues.



  • Ensure sustainability of federally funded programs. Many in the education community have expressed concerns about the long-term viability of ARP-funded programs once federal funding is depleted. California’s Expanded Opportunities Grant program offers a great example of braiding state and federal funds to sustain support beyond the obligation deadline.


To continue supporting this program, the state aims to invest billions of dollars after 2024. This comprehensive policy provides funds to local education agencies to expand instructional time in and out of school, accelerate student progress through tutoring and learning hubs, safeguard student health with wraparound supports, and invest in school staff.


  • Implement technology-based solutions. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local education policymakers turned to technology to meet students’ immediate needs. We found that states have doubled down on their technology investments to support students.


For instance, Mississippi is investing $17.6 million in ESSER III funds to provide universal telehealth and teletherapy services in public schools. These services have been made possible by a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which already offers telehealth and teletherapy through local service centers. By partnering together, the state can leverage the medical center’s existing resources and technical assistance.


  • Enhance performance monitoring to support students. Not all students have the same needs coming out of the pandemic. Engage New Mexico is a partnership between the New Mexico Public Education Department and the Graduation Alliance that helps students who did not successfully make the transition to remote learning. The initiative identifies students who missed the most in-person instruction and provides tiered support based on need through academic coaches and outreach counselors.


While challenges such as supply chain shortages and inflation have slowed spending and the U.S. Department of Education is now considering requests for extensions, examples like these show that state leaders are overcoming obstacles and engaging in promising strategies to increase services to students and promote long-term success. (NOTE: This blog was originally published on the Education Commission of the States website)


About the author:

Chris Duncombe, Sr. Policy Analyst, Education Commission of the States focuses on K-12 school finance as a senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States. Chris has 10 years of experience working on fiscal policy at the state and local level with a focus on school funding, and his previous research in Virginia informed state policymakers in their design of equity-based school funding. Chris believes in the power of diverse, well-resourced learning environments and the key role school finance plays in setting the stage for student success.


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