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How a $5 lesson can help districts avoid a multi-million freefall when ESSER funding expires

By: Gabrielle Hewitt on January 30th, 2024

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How a $5 lesson can help districts avoid a multi-million freefall when ESSER funding expires

Strategic Planning  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership

In 2009, Professor Tina Seelig looked over her class of Stanford business students and assigned a simple challenge. Working in groups, the students were given $5 and 2 hours to make the highest possible return on their money. They had a week to plan their strategy with almost unlimited creativity. At the end of the challenge, each group gave a 3 minute presentation to share their process and results with their peers.

Most people faced with a similar challenge would follow one of two logical routes to secure a return on investment (ROI):

  •  Focus on the money and try to “flip” it - buy an item for $5 and sell it for $10
  •  Focus on the time allotment of 2 hours and try to “side hustle” - engage in “gig economy” jobs to make additional income

Many of Professor Seelig’s students did follow these paths. A few groups tried to buy items from a store, like toys or candy, and sell them at a higher price to other students. Other groups ignored the $5 and used their 2 hours to generate income from services, like making and selling hard-to-score restaurant reservations or filling bike tires on campus. Each group succeeded in making more than they initially invested. But one group - the winning group - ignored both the money and time and focused on a hidden asset within the challenge - the 3-minute presentation itself.

This final group realized that there were local businesses who would pay for “ad space” to reach a group of Stanford business students. This group sold their 3-minute presentation slot to a local business looking to recruit students for $650 - a nearly 13,000% ROI!

What this final group accomplished was unique but very repeatable. Rather than engage in linear thinking, they were creative in deducing the right asset to focus on.

In 2024, as schools and districts nationwide are looking at how to spend their remaining ESSER dollars, they may feel like they are facing a similar challenge.  With limited time and finite funds, they seek to generate the maximum ROI for their community. With the $190 million ESSER funding cliff looming, districts can take a page from Stanford’s business students and engage in creative thinking to find the best way to invest their remaining dollars before the September 2024 deadline. 

the ultimate guide to strategic planning

How did we get here? A brief timeline of ESSER funds:

  •  In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented district shutdowns, the federal government provided Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to support districts with pandemic-related expenses. This fund, titled ESSER I, was largely intended and primarily  used for personal protective equipment (PPE) and to support safety measures as students and educators returned to in-person learning later.
  • In January 2021, the federal government released additional ESSER II funds. These funds offered greater flexibility in how they could be spent beyond safety measures and equipment.
  • In March 2021, the federal government released ESSER III, the largest grant. ESSER III dollars offered the greatest flexibility in spending, requiring that only 20% of funds be used to address learning loss and support academic recovery. Districts had the discretion to spend the remaining funds as needed.
  • To date, districts have spent ESSER funds on investments such as labor (including salary raises and newly created positions), professional development, technology, curriculum, and social-emotional learning. Other expenditures fall under “continuity of labor,” meaning they are helping fill budget gaps. 

In short, ESSER funding has covered both recurring expenses and budget deficits, meaning that when ESSER III expires this year, districts will be faced with a funding “cliff”. 

What can districts learn from Professor Seelig’s students as they face this funding cliff?

As districts are faced with the challenge of prioritizing their remaining ESSER funds to create maximum ROI for their students and staff, they should be considering three major questions:

  1. What are we currently doing with our ESSER funding?
  2. What will we do when those funding dollars run out this year?
  3. How do we measure the impact of our investments to prioritize how to most effectively use our remaining dollars? 

If districts follow the Stanford students’ creative thinking, they could replace thinking about dollars (“We have $1 million left in our ESSER allocations) and time (“We have less than a year to spend these funds”) and instead consider unique ways to gain an ROI on their spending. 

Rather than invest in new technologies or products, we at Education Elements recommend using ESSER Funds to successfully implement existing investments. In other words, rather than spend money on something that would be quick to implement, but might have low efficacy, districts could invest in increasing the impact of investments already in place. 

Consider the following challenges and examples of how to prioritize increasing the efficacy of current investments: 

Challenge #1: Have a goal to redesign classrooms to be more innovative? 

Invest in professional development to deepen teachers’ knowledge of personalized learning practices and redesign the student experience .

Consider a small district in New Jersey. They recently finished a capital improvement project to build their new middle school with state of the art classrooms. The district wants to ensure that when teachers move into these classrooms next fall, they are using innovative teaching practices to maximize the equipment and technology they have invested in. This district could allocate ESSER funds to train their middle school teachers on personalized and student-centered learning models.

Challenge #2:  Have a desire to address students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) needs? 

Invest in engagement practices (like a student survey and student focus groups) to determine where there are gaps in your district’s SEL practices so you can be targeted and impactful in your SEL efforts.

A small district in upstate New York recently experienced a superintendent transition. The retiring leader identified a gap in student support services post-COVID and the new superintendent has set a goal in their first 100 days to address this gap. This district could invest ESSER funds to conduct a student SEL survey or focus groups to hear directly from students about their experience. The findings from these engagement activities would give the district helpful data to use to create supports directly aligned to these student-identified needs.


instructional models, strategic visions

Challenge #3: Have a strategic plan that needs a refresh? 

Invest in a planning process that includes all of your constituents in the community so that you can be responsive, timely, and inclusive in your goal-setting instead of keeping the plan to a group of select leaders.

An independent school district in western Pennsylvania has a strategic plan that has expired. In reflecting on the last five years of the plan, they determined that the Mission, Vision, and Belief Statements still feel relevant, but the plan itself did not feel actionable. This district could use ESSER funds to conduct a strategic planning refresh process to create focus areas and aligned actions for the next five years. The district could ensure that representatives from every constituent group are included and feel ownership over implementing the plan, and use additional funds to monitor the implementation of the plan. 

Challenge #4: Have a program or initiative that you’ve invested in for years but haven’t seen much progress?  

Check out our Art of Implementing Well framework to ensure that you are shoring up your implementation rather than adopting a brand new program or initiative.

A district in Ohio has been steadily investing in building their data culture by data sources, and are now suffering from DRIP - they are data rich, information poor. They would like to continue to focus on building a data culture, but need support in how they use that information. They could use ESSER funding to invest in the implementation of a responsive data culture through data use trainings, a platform for managing the data, and even the creation of a data culture playbook that includes an overview of data cycles and protocols for looking at, analyzing, and acting on data.

If you need support in prioritizing your remaining ESSER funds, implementing your existing initiatives well, or just a creative thought partner, let’s talk! Our team at Education Elements can help you avoid linear thinking - and a freefall off the impending ESSER funding cliff. 


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About Gabrielle Hewitt

Gabby Hewitt is a Partner at Education Elements, working directly with large and small schools and districts to impact student growth and success. She spent six years in the classroom as an 8th grade U.S. History Teacher, first in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and later with KIPP DC. In her first year in the classroom, she was selected to receive the Maryland Association of Teacher Educators Distinguished Teacher Candidate award. During that time, Gabby also wrote the county-wide history curriculum for middle schools and assisted the Prince George’s County Social Studies Department with the rollout and integration of the Common Core State Standards. Gabby led teams as both the Social Studies Department Chair and Eighth Grade Level Chairperson before leaving the classroom to train and manage the development of resident teachers in her charter network. As the Manager of Professional Development for the Capital Teaching Residency program with KIPP DC, she developed skills in planning and facilitating adult professional development, project management, and effective teaching evaluation models. Gabby holds a B.S. in Political Science and a B.A. in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University. She earned her M.S. in Educational Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Born and raised in New Orleans, Gabby currently lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and three little ones. When she is not working, you can find Gabby pursuing her passion for photography or enjoying a good cup of coffee.

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