Time to Spend ESSER Funds Is Running Out

How Schools Should Prioritize Spending Special Education Dollars

Last year, in his fourth year of teaching, Mr. Howe served as the fourth-grade self-contained teacher and special education chair for his elementary school in his rural district. He led professional development for the other special education staff during departmental PD days and hosted several parent workshops to increase the home-school partnership for families of students with disabilities. Mr. Howe was busy, at times overextended, but on the whole, felt like he was making a real difference in the lives of his students, their families, and other special education teachers.

In the spring, Mr. Howe’s principal approached him with a compelling opportunity – the district’s special education director was moving out of state at the end of the school year and the superintendent had personally recommended Mr. Howe to fill the position. Mr. Howe’s principal wanted to know if he was interested in going through the application process.

Would you be?

The idea of a district-level leadership position was intimidating, but also intriguing. He began to envision effecting change on a broader scale than just his own class, bringing the latest teaching practices and curricula to his district.

A few pro forma interviews later and Mr. Howe was the newly minted special education director for the county. Within days of starting his new role, he found a budget deadline approaching on his calendar. It was an enormous stretch to discern how, if at all, he should adjust the proposal from last year’s plan.

“Time to spend ESSER is running out! You should probably lock in the multi-year contract” – is all the briefing he got from his boss.

The information he could find from his predecessor was disorganized and incomplete, and he found himself on an island making decisions about curriculum renewals, the number of paraprofessionals and curriculum coaches to hire, device-to-student ratios, and more.

Versions of this scenario are playing out all over the country. Do you know a leader facing similar challenges?

Male student with physical, cognitive disability smiling while working with a puzzle on a wheelchair tray

This pillar report presents an overview of special education funding that is meant to serve as a guidepost for special education administrators who are new to decision-making and budgeting processes within their districts or LEAs. Continue reading to –

  • Develop a macro understanding of how special education is funded across the nation, including how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) delivers funds to states and districts.
  • Learn about the allowable uses for each round of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds, with a sharp reminder that the final round of ESSER dollars must be obligated by September 30, 2024.
  • Find solidarity among your peers with an acknowledgment of competing priorities that new and veteran special education leaders face, and the challenges of securing funds to address the pressing needs of students and staff.

What is more important? Funding a curriculum coaching position or investing in new education technology targeted to your most complex students? Is there a way to do both? The honest answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. To this end, we offer four guiding questions to help guide the decision-making process.

The coronavirus pandemic shed light on the serious cracks in our education system, including and especially, in special education. With the largest ever one-time investment in American education, the American Rescue Plan’s ESSER III funds give education leaders an actionable inflection point to make changes to the way things have always been done. An effective core curriculum is at the heart of that change. Let’s learn why –

Funding Special Education in America

An Overview

Specially designed instruction and services are expensive. Highly qualified special education teachers, related service professionals like speech therapists, assistive technology, and an adapted core curriculum are a few examples. Nationally, these cost billions of dollars every year.

Funding for special education programming comes primarily from two sources: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides the bulk of the funding, and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020 brought a third – and time-limited – source of federal funding for special education programming through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds. Let’s take a closer look at each of these funding sources.


IDEA is America’s special education law and it works as a grants-to-states statute. This means IDEA provides federal funding for the education of children with disabilities and requires states to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to every eligible child. To access FAPE, students may require a range of services, from consultative support on a monthly basis to intensive, daily wraparound services in a full-time special education setting. IDEA provides the funding for these supports.

ESSA Funding

ESSA was reauthorized in 2015 and replaced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was America’s longest-standing commitment to equal opportunity for all students. In its reauthorization, ESSA continues to provide support to students in low-income areas and in schools where subgroups, including students with disabilities, are making progress at disproportionate rates. ESSA funds may also be used to increase access to specialized instructional support personnel (SISP), a term that encompasses the related services personnel defined by IDEA. These include professionals such as school and district-level psychologists, school counselors, and occupational therapists, for example. ESSA can help fund these positions.

Related services professional working 1:1 with a student with a speech and language impairment

ESSER Funding

Between March 2020 – March 2021, Congress passed three key pieces of legislation to address the widespread economic fallout from the pandemic. In each of these legislative acts, billions of relief dollars were allocated to support individuals, families, small businesses, and organizations across sectors of the economy to respond to virus-related costs.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds were a key part of the relief specific to K-12 education. Other education funds, like the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds, may be used in childcare settings, PreK – 12 education, adult education, and higher education settings, but for the sake of our discussion, we will focus on ESSER funds.

Federal dollars (from IDEA, ESSA, or ESSER) flow from the national level to the States to local school districts. For the remainder of this discussion, States may be referred to as States or as State Education Agencies (SEAs), and local school districts may be referred to as Districts or Local Education Agencies (LEAs).

IDEA Funding

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) contains four parts:

  • Part A includes general provisions (e.g., purpose of the law, definitions used throughout the statute)
  • Part B is for all children and youth with disabilities from ages 3 through 21
  • Part C covers infants and toddlers with disabilities, serving children from birth through age two as well as their families
  • Part D includes technical assistance, parent-training, information centers, and more

Part B, which covers special education services for children and youth with disabilities ages 3 – 21, includes approximately 95% of the total IDEA appropriations (e.g., most of IDEA dollars go to PreK – 12 students). The fiscal year (FY) 2023 budget for the Part B grants-to-states is $16.3 billion, which translates to approximately $2,199 per student for the 7.4 million students with documented disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). The FY 2023 allocation represents a $3.3 billion increase from 2021, and equates to a 15 percent federal contribution to the national average per pupil expenditure. To date, this is the largest ever two-year increase for IDEA funding and reflects Congress’s intention of putting IDEA on a glidepath toward full funding.

IDEA Funding Formulas

When IDEA was first enacted in 1974, Congress authorized funding for up to 40% of average per-pupil spending. In other words, the law allows the federal government to fund nearly half of the cost of providing special education services for students with disabilities. The remaining cost is provided by States and LEAs. However, federal funding has never reached the 40% target, and even with the marked increase in the budget in FY 2023, the 15% funding is still (significantly) short.

Education researchers from the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization, are joining a growing body of practitioners and policymakers presenting the case for reconsidering special education funding formulas, citing the fact that more money is not enough on its own. In their 2022 report, authors Kolbe, Dhuey, and Doutre argue that the current formula “generates substantial differences among states in the amount of federal funding available to pay for a child’s special education services” and suggest that full funding of IDEA (at 40%) would only perpetuate these differences rather than close the gap. They call for a revised formula that reduces, rather than exacerbates, these disparities.

However, for the time being, school leaders like Mr. Howe must make decisions within the constraints of their state and district rules.

The clock is ticking for ESSER funds – the ESSER II and ESSER III funds are time-limited with obligation dates in September 2023 and September 2024.

Let’s dive into the “what,” “why,” and “how” of using these funds now.

Adolescent female working on her computer

ESSER Funding Allowable Uses

ESSER Funds have been awarded to States for the purpose of providing LEAs with emergency relief funds to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools across the nation. The Department of Education has provided specific requirements for how the funds must be used.

For example, of the total amount allocated to an LEA from the State’s ARP ESSER award, the LEA must reserve at least 20% to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Those interventions must respond to students’ social, emotional, and/or academic needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups. Vulnerable student subgroups include each major racial and ethnic group, children from low-income families, children with disabilities, English language learners, gender, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and youth in foster care.

Yet, there is also room for discretionary spending to allow States, Districts, and building-level administrators to make decisions that will support the needs specific to their student and staff population.

The tables below summarize the key points of the three legislative acts—CARES Act, CRRSA Act, and ARP—as they relate to ESSER funding, including allowable uses for each of the three waves of relief dollars.

Obligation Dates

Multi-Year Contracts Are Allowed

Many school districts and partners (vendors) in education have questions about signing multi-year contracts using ESSER funds. For example, is a District permitted to commit to a three-year contract with a special education software company that serves its student population with moderate to severe disabilities? The end of the three-year contract would be after the obligation date of the ESSER Funds.

The answer is yes.

Anna Kimsey Edwards with Whiteboard Advisors offered a clarifying summary of the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance on multi-year commitments with ESSER Funds. She writes,

“The U.S. Department of Education has always encouraged conservative grant management practices…  but federal guidance also recognizes that there are circumstances where contracted activities may continue for a reasonable time after the “liquidation date.” And ESSER is such a case” (Edwards, 2023).

This means school districts can sign a multi-term licensing contract and pay for the contract with ESSER Funds before the final liquidation date. They can continue to receive access to goods and services under the contract for some time after the liquidation date.

Now, let’s look further into what the allowable uses are for ESSER Funds.

Allowable Uses

Allowable uses that specifically relate to special education services and programming have been bolded.

Allowable uses for ESSER I, II, and III
  • Any activities authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, IDEA, Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, and the McKinney-Vento Act
  • Coordination of preparedness and response efforts of LEAs with state, local, tribal, and territorial public health departments, and other relevant agencies, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus
  • Providing resources for principals and other school leaders to address school-specific needs
  • Activities that address the unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youths, including how outreach and service delivery will meet the needs of each population
  • Developing and implementing procedures and systems to improve the preparedness and response efforts of LEAs
  • Training and professional development for LEA staff on sanitation and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases
  • Purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean facilities operated by an LEA
  • Planning and coordination during long-term closures, including how to provide meals to eligible students, how to provide online learning technology to all students, how to provide guidance on meeting IDEA requirements, and how to ensure other educational services can continue to be provided consistent with federal, state, and local requirements
  • Purchasing educational technology, which could include hardware, software, and connectivity, for students served by the LEA that aids in regular, substantive educational interaction between students and educators, including low-income students and students with disabilities. This could also include assistive technology or adaptive equipment
  • Providing mental health services and supports
  • Planning and implementing summer learning and supplemental after-school program activities, including providing classroom instruction or online learning during the summer months and addressing the needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care
  • Other activities necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in LEAs and continue to employ existing staff
Allowable uses for ESSER II and III
  • Addressing learning loss among all students in all subgroups, including by:
    • Administering high-quality, reliable assessments that can assess student academic progress and assist educators in meeting student needs, including by using differentiated instruction
    • Implementing evidence-based activities to meet the comprehensive needs of students
    • Providing information and assistance to parents and families on ways to support students
    • Tracking student performance and engagement in distance learning environments
  • School facility repairs and improvements to enable the operation of schools to reduce risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards and support student health needs.
  • Inspecting, testing, maintaining, repairing, replacing, and upgrading projects to improve the indoor air quality in school facilities, including HVAC systems, filtering, purification and other air cleaning, fans, control systems, and window and door repair and replacement.
Allowable uses for ESSER III only
  • Development of strategies and implementation of public health protocols that align with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on reopening and operating school facilities to maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff

Key themes emerge in the allowable uses for ESSER funds. In addition to preparing for and responding to public health protocols that reduce the risk of virus exposure, the legislation makes a clear path for States and Districts to prioritize vulnerable populations, including students with disabilities, by way of implementing evidence-based interventions and education technology.

Challenges in Deploying ESSER Funds

At least 90% of ESSER funds must go directly to Districts. At the end of the 2021-2022 school year (halfway through the total ESSER funding window), school districts had spent an estimated $45 billion of the total available funds, leaving approximately $130 billion to allocate by September 30, 2024. Yet, very real challenges, like limited planning capacity, staff shortages, and administrative hurdles likely mean that billions of dollars will be left unspent at the close of the funding window next fall.

Special education administrator frustrated with competing priorities when developing budget

Consider a few of the key challenges Mr. Howe is facing:

  • Brand new to his leadership position, Mr. Howe has never gone through an annual budget process before. He lacks the formal training, experience, and skillset to navigate the reporting and compliance standards required to spend ESSER funds. The superintendent of his district and administrative team have struggled to assemble the internal strategic planning and operational capacity to make and execute spending decisions in the face of competing priorities. Some of these competing priorities include:
    • Salaries and benefits for special education teachers and support staff
    • Curriculum for students with moderate to severe disabilities that access alternative assessments
    • Evidence-based intervention programs for all students in the response-to-intervention (RTI) process
    • Legal fees to prepare for and respond to the ongoing and increased threat of litigation
    • Repairing and/or replacing technology to maintain 1:1 student-to-device ratio
    • Developing an after-school and summer learning program
    • And more –
  • Like many districts across the country, Mr. Howe’s rural county is desperate for more teachers, paraprofessionals, related service professionals, mental health professionals, and tutors. A sparse pool of applicants makes hiring for new initiatives, such as the after-school tutoring program, and autism coaching positions, difficult.

Decision-Making in the Face of Competing Priorities

So, what’s the solution? How can district-level and building-level special education leaders move the needle on the deployment of the emergency relief dollars available to them? How should Mr. Howe make decisions about curriculum and technology for his students? Resources for his teachers? Programs for his students’ families?

One critical piece of the puzzle is the evaluation framework.

An evaluation framework is an effective tool that systematically brings together the multiple stakeholders involved in making decisions about a potential purchase. 

Whether Mr. Howe is considering renewing his inclusion teacher’s subscription to a remedial reading program or signing a multi-year contract on a comprehensive, adapted core curriculum, he needs to have  support from teachers, parents, finance officers, curriculum coaches, and the superintendent – to name a few.

Grounding discussions about a purchase opportunity with a shared understanding of the specific needs, goals, timeline, and budget helps move the process forward from idea to action. Evaluation frameworks are meant to be practical and unbiased, objectively guiding teams along a clear path toward a needed and effective solution for a clearly defined problem. They may incorporate guiding questions such as the ones shared below.

Special educator using technology in her classroom

Guiding Questions When Evaluating EdTech Solutions

Identify the relevant stakeholders involved in the decision-making process

Example: Special Education Coordinator, District-level Special Education Director, Building-level Special Education Coach, Special Education Teachers, Parents, Chief Finance Officer, and Chief Technology Officer

Describe the specific need, or problem, your district is facing

Example: Teachers of students with moderate to severe disabilities do not have a curriculum. Students are not getting access to standards-based instruction. Parents are upset that their children are watching YouTube videos for a significant portion of the  school day. Teachers are exhausted from creating all their own materials, and they are frustrated with last-minute lesson activities from TeachersPayTeachers; they are also tired of using their own money to purchase activities, materials, and supplies. Students are acting out in part because the lessons are not engaging. Several classrooms have long-term substitutes with no formal teaching experience or special education training. 

Recommend specific products, services, and/or solutions that may meet the needs identified in #2, and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each potential solution. 

Example: TeachTown delivers a whole child approach with enCORE, a K-12 adapted core curriculum aligned to state standards, and its supporting interventions (Social Skills, Basics, Transition to Adulthood, and Health & Wellness) that address the adaptive and behavioral needs of students. enCORE is a comprehensive curriculum option with scripted and differentiated lesson plans and materials. It offers an advanced blended learning experience with hands-on lessons and technology-driven instruction. Teachers have access to systematic data collection and analysis that informs instruction, IEP goal development, and progress monitoring. Student behavior improves with access to “just right” learning resources. 

What IT or legal barriers must be overcome to move forward with procurement?

Example: Share technical documentation to ensure the solution is compliant with IT requirements. Conduct an initial scope of SSO and receive IT endorsement and approval.  

When leadership teams struggle with the capacity to make strategic budget decisions, part of the root cause is a disjointed framework for how to make the decision. Using an evaluation framework will help.

Why the Right Curriculum Matters So Much

We all know teachers do not enter the profession to earn six-figure salaries. Rather, the drive to help shape the next generation is a call that lends itself to a deeply rewarding vocation. As the quote above indicates, the charge for modern educators is not to manage behaviors and complete compliance paperwork (which is what so many of today’s special education teachers find themselves doing throughout the majority of the school day). Teachers who stay inspire in their students a lifelong love of learning and a sense of self-confidence. They nurture the whole child through warm and trusting relationships, a strong curriculum that is appropriately challenging, effective technology and classroom tools, and more.

So why are so many teachers leaving?

Why are those who have dreamt of teaching their whole lives transitioning to other fields or leaving the workforce altogether? The answers are complex, but here are a few of the key reasons:

  • Burnout
  • Student behavior challenges
  • Increasing threat of litigation

A strong curriculum that equally supports students and teachers is an essential piece to the three points listed above. Here’s why:

When special education teachers have to create resources from scratch, pulling bits and pieces from websites, textbooks, and other places, they get tired. Indeed, developing curriculum is a full-time job. When teachers are tasked with creating their own curriculum and implementing it, something has to give. Either the hours in the evening and weekends are spent creating tailored resources for their students’ individual needs, or the lesson activities and student-facing materials they use are simply not the right level or fit for their students. A comprehensive adapted curriculum that is scripted, differentiated to three levels, and designed to meet the individualized needs of individual learners is a significant part of the answer to this problem.

If students are bored in class with content that they mastered weeks, months, or years ago, they may act out. If the material presented is too challenging to engage with in a meaningful way, interfering behaviors are more likely to occur. A comprehensive adapted curriculum that is scripted, differentiated to three levels, and designed to meet the individualized needs of individual learners is part of the answer.

Finally, a common complaint in special education litigation cases has to do with students not receiving evidence-based instruction or standards-aligned instruction that is equitable to the experiences of typical learners in the general education setting. Federal legislation requires this, and a strong curriculum that is standards-based and backed by research solves this problem.

3 teachers standing and smiling in a school hallway.

What’s Your Decision?

Investing in the right curriculum is worth it for teachers and it is worth it for students.

TeachTown offers students with moderate to severe disabilities equitable and inclusive access to the general education curriculum with an adapted core curriculum and a suite of supporting interventions that address the academic, adaptive, and behavioral needs of each student.

Adapted Core Curriculum

enCORE is the only K-12 standards-based, adapted core curriculum based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that provides students with moderate to severe disabilities equitable and inclusive access to the general education curriculum.

Developed by a team of BCBAs, PhDs, SLPs, and veteran educators, enCORE offers adapted grade-aligned content, high-quality, differentiated literature with visual supports, and integrated technology.

enCORE is an advanced blended learning model with a 2-pronged approach:

  • Hands-on, teacher-led instruction that moves students from exposure to mastery through systematic, explicit instruction
  • Technology-facilitated instruction that personalizes learning with automated, differentiated lessons based on student performance and real-time data tracking

In addition, enCORE is backed by the most current research on how this complex student population learns best, including ABA, systematic and explicit instruction, and the science of reading (for the ELA domain). Lesson plans are comprehensive, differentiated, and scripted, providing teachers with a step-by-step guide for implementation.

Student data is integrated into one reporting platform, which analyzes student performance by domain and skill, IEP goals, and state standards. enCORE drives a 69% student growth rate between pre-test and post-test scores. Alignment is foundational to enCORE — curriculum is aligned to standards and end-of-unit assessments are aligned to instruction within each unit. The scope, sequence, and instructional scaffold allow educators to monitor student progress on skills across academic domains using one assessment for all students. Based on student response, the assessment indicates the level of support or understanding of the content prior to instruction, helping to guide instructional decisions and pacing.

enCORE does it all because the most complex learners – and their teachers – need it all.

The time to obligate ESSER funds is running out. Prioritize your relief dollars with what matters most: taking care of students and teachers.

Get in touch here to take the first step with investing in the most effective curriculum for your students with moderate to severe disabilities, and support your district’s students, teachers, and leaders in the process. Bonus: learn how to use an evaluation framework curated specifically for evaluating TeachTown against your other options.

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