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District Use of ESSER Funds: Concerns about Impact and Program Sustainability

Headshot Scott JoftusScott Joftus

Posted May 9, 2023


In 2020, the federal government passed three separate laws that each allocated significant resources to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, commonly referred to as ESSER.

Nationally, $190 billion in federal emergency aid was provided to states through the ESSER funds in support of public elementary and secondary education, which represents the single largest investment ever in public education.  And, importantly, the vast majority of these funds went to high-need communities.  During a time of crisis brought on by COVID-19, ESSER has provided schools and districts with critical support to hire additional staff, provide expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer, expand college and career readiness options, purchase technology, upgrade facilities, and invest in professional development.

With ESSER funds scheduled to sunset in September of 2024, schools and districts are faced with the challenge of finding continued funding for those strategies that are making a difference for students.  To learn how districts have been using their funds, assessing impact, and planning to sustain effective programming after the ESSER funds sunset, FourPoint interviewed leaders from three medium to large districts—Montgomery County Public Schools (MD), where FourPoint president Scott Joftus served on the board of education during 2022, and Charles County Public Schools (MD) and Fayette County Public School (KY), which are both recent FourPoint clients.

FourPoint’s sustainability framework and technical assistance can help districts engage stakeholders, assess performance of investments, and plan strategically as they use their remaining ESSER funds and continue effective programs when the ESSER funds are gone.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MD)

MCPS borders Washington, DC to the northwest and serves approximately 160,000 students.  According to Ivon Alfonso Windsor, MCPS’ Budget Unit Supervisor, since ESSER funds became available at different times of the pandemic, MCPS’ use of the funds evolved:

  • ESSER I (about $24 million) was used primarily to help with the transition to virtual learning, ensuring that every student had a computer and hotspot if necessary.

  • ESSER II (about $112 million) was primarily used for summer school and tutoring (including compensatory education for students receiving special education services) and technology as the district realized the need to address students’ learning loss.

  • ESSER III ($252 million) continued some of these investments, but the district also began planning for longer term. For example, MCPS invested in a virtual academy, which will be an ongoing option for students who wish to continue virtual learning.  ESSER III funding has also been used to fund mental health workers and a virtual mental health program as well as a social-emotional learning curriculum and restorative justice training for educators and staff.  Alfonso Windsor noted that the district is already looking into how to continue to shift spending for these critical initiatives into the operating budget.

Ms. Alfonso Windsor noted the huge challenge in investing ESSER funds strategically and assessing impact.  Aside from working in crisis mode to manage the pandemic, MCPS was dealing with an interim Superintendent (Dr. Monifa McKnight, who has since been hired on a permanent basis) and significant turnover in the district’s leadership team.  Ms. Alfonso Windsor added that recruiting and retaining teachers (ESSER did enable some bonuses and increased pay) and maintaining the one-to-one technology initiative—all while maintaining increasing investments in mental health supports, for example—will be a significant challenge, although fiscal year 2024’s budget has already incorporated significant pay raises for teachers and other staff.

Charles County Public Schools (MD)

CCPS is in southern Maryland and serves approximately 27,000 students.  According to Kevin Lowndes, CCPS Chief of Teaching and Learning, students were not achieving satisfactorily prior to COVID-19, and the pandemic—along with the significant increase in students’ mental health needs and staff burnout—have only lowered performance.  As a result, said Mr. Lowndes, CCPS’ biggest ESSER investments have been in summer school and tutoring.

Mr. Lowndes noted that CCPS had a summer school prior to the pandemic, but it was only for high school students, and the students had to pay for school and figure out transportation on their own.  CCPS used ESSER funds to develop free summer school programming for all grade levels and to provide free meals and transportation.  As a result, participation in summer school has quadrupled after a slow start the first year, said Mr. Lowndes.

For student tutoring, CCPS gave each of its schools the autonomy to plan its own program for before and after school.  This approach gave the district the ability to help schools with the particular problems they were having with implementation: While some schools, for example, have had little problem hiring teachers for tutoring, other schools have.  In the schools with challenges hiring teachers, the district has been able to help by identifying local partners, providing a virtual tutoring option, or leveraging teachers from other schools.

Throughout, as with summer school, the district has used iReady to assess the programs’ impact on student learning, and refine the district’s approach to ensure maximum impact.  Nonetheless, Mr. Lowndes added, CCPS biggest challenge going forward without ESSER funds will be hiring sufficient numbers of high-quality teachers and continuing to maintain and upgrade technology for its initiative to provide every student with a laptop.

Fayette County Public Schools (KY)

FCPS includes the city of Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky, and serves approximately 40,000 students.  According to Meocha Williams, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Academic Services, the district has become more strategic with ESSER II and ESSER III funds than they were with ESSER I funds: “We used ESSER I funds primarily for staff like teachers, interventionists, and academic coaches even though we knew that paying for staff wasn’t advised. But that was the need we had at that time.”

These investments, said Dr. Williams, have led the district to begin looking at funding adequacy overall: Is the FCPS staffing formula sufficient if we need to hire staff with one-time ESSER funds?  For example, does the district have the staff capacity to implement Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) for students’ behavior and academic needs with fidelity (an FCPS priority)?  These questions have led to engagement with educators and principals and support from FourPoint to assess the HR and budgeting functions, work that is ongoing.

For ESSER II and ESSER III, the district started focusing on high-impact initiatives that it can sustain after the funds sunset and that are aligned with its strategic plan, which FourPoint helped to develop.  For example, FCPS has now used ESSER funds to increase access to preK (purchased buses, marketed to parents, provided devices to parents and students, and purchased learning platforms) and expand pathways and increase certifications in career and technical education (CTE). The district realized that it could shift funding from ESSER to Title IV of ESEA and has received commitments from community partners to help sustain preK and CTE programs after ESSER sunsets.

Finally, as part of its strategic plan, FCPS has developed an office of innovation.  Among other focus areas, this office will help to coordinate research and evaluation across the central office that assesses the implementation and impact of key initiatives, including those funded by ESSER.  This investment deserves to be studied by districts in the future to consider how they can expand their capacities in performance management and continuous improvement.


ESSER funds provided tremendous benefits to school districts across the country as they scrambled to ensure the safety to students and families, transition to virtual schooling, and then return to in-person school while addressing the trauma and loss of learning resulting from COVID-19.  Especially at first, districts—including those profiled here—tended to work in crisis mode, spending the funds on immediate needs and then transitioning to investing in more strategic initiatives.

Districts have struggled to assess the impact of their most strategic investments, however, and acknowledge concerns with sustaining critical initiatives—including computers for students, incentives and higher pay for teachers and other staff, tutoring, and extended learning opportunities—when ESSER funds sunset in September 2024.  FourPoint—which recently celebrated our 19th anniversary—has worked with districts from across the country to assess needs and evaluate programs, plan strategically, and budget effectively for maximum impact on student outcomes.  Let us know how we can help your district.

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