Rachel Wallace, a former education programming associate and research assistant, is the Data Quality Campaign’s Spring 2021 Graduate Intern. She is passionate about using data to advance equitable learning opportunities and promote racial equity.
Over the past two years, states have received unprecedented levels of federal funding to safely reopen schools and accelerate COVID-19 recovery efforts. In December, DQC examined state plans for spending American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds to better understand how state leaders are using data to identify needs, target resources, and measure student progress. Yet 90 percent of ESSER funds go directly to local education agencies (LEAs)—meaning districts also have a crucial role to play in deciding exactly how funds are allocated on the ground. We set out to discover what we can learn from LEA ESSER spending plans, focusing on availability, content, and the role of data and transparency in COVID-19 recovery efforts.
LEA funding plans vary widely by state in terms of availability, standardization, and content, creating barriers for comparison and understanding. Forty-three states have provided access to some LEA spending plans via the US Department of Education, yet the level and availability of information included varies between and even within states. One third of states did not require LEAs to include financial details, meaning many LEA plans lack critical data about how and where funds are being spent. Other states are publishing Back to School Plans more widely than ESSER Use of Funds Plans; these documents provide operational information but lack concrete details on how ESSER funds are being spent. This variation makes it difficult to compare plans between LEAs, both within and across states.
At least 13 states have taken measures to make information more consistent and available by providing standardized forms to compare and aggregate data, utilizing public grants management systems to track spending (AK, AZ, CT) or maintaining dashboards on LEA ARP ESSER funds (GA, MO, TN). Increased public ease of access will likely be necessary to thoroughly analyze where ESSER funds are going, allowing key stakeholders to understand how pandemic recovery funding directly affects students.
Available information suggests that LEAs have many of the same spending priorities as state education agencies (SEAs). Both DQC’s and Future Ed’s analysis of state ARP ESSER plans highlight emphases on academic recovery, understanding of students’ social and emotional needs, and greater educator support. An analysis of 2500 LEAs—accounting for 53 percent of public school students in the US—highlighted five main priorities in LEA ESSER spending, many of which align with SEA priorities overall. These include:
- increased hiring, training, and recruitment and retention efforts
- programs to accelerate academic recovery through summer learning, afterschool programming, and tutoring efforts
- social and emotional supports, such as social-emotional learning, family and community engagement, and student and teacher mental health
- investments in technology and school facility improvements
Some LEA plans also highlight the role of data in informing action and ensuring transparency, a recurring theme in SEA ESSER plans. State ESSER plans revealed a strong commitment to data; 40 states explicitly identify data they will utilize to measure pandemic impact on students. As states continue to release, and perhaps standardize, LEA plans, more information will become available about the wider use of data in LEA plans. Early analysis highlights the diverse ways in which states and districts will use data:
- Districts in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Texas are using data to target funds to historically underserved populations and schools impacted most by the pandemic.
- In Connecticut and Texas, districts are leveraging data systems to address social and emotional needs and promote family engagement.
- Other states and districts are using data to understand and support students’ long-term pathways, such as by keeping students on-track for graduation, strengthening postsecondary and workforce data systems, and evaluating the long-term effectiveness of recovery programs.
As state agencies continue to release LEA ESSER spending plans, several tools are available to track trends and developments, promoting transparency in both state and local ARP ESSER spending. Sources include a dashboard for ESSER expenditure reports, an ESSER relief fund tracker, and an LEA plan database.
States and districts must continue to prioritize transparency in how and where ESSER funds are being spent. Leaders, researchers, and advocates need this information to understand how this historic investment impacts student outcomes and to compare the effectiveness of different strategies. Sharing this information publicly is also essential to building trust and maintaining public support for recovery efforts.