The pandemic was an unprecedented, challenging time for families and communities. School leaders, educators and families rallied to problem-solve and adapt to a new normal – with many lacking the resources to do so. The bipartisan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) funds enabled educational institutions to identify critical health, safety and infrastructure concerns and implement action plans to minimize barriers to learning. In Fall 2022, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools surveyed 4,000 leaders of charter school networks and independent charter schools to better understand how charter schools leveraged their ESSER funds. The results were recently published in Adapting Throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic: How Charter Schools Spent ESSER Funding.
According to the study, spending was divided into the following seven categories:
- Family Support
- Mental Health
- Physical Health
Research revealed that all public schools’ (including charter schools, but disproportionately representing district-run schools) initial planning of ESSER funds spending included an almost even distribution between staffing (27%), academic recovery (25%) and facilities and operations (23%). The rest of the funds were intended for technology, mental and physical health and miscellaneous expenses. There were slight variations in the charter school sector. Collectively, charters schools allocated most of their funds to academics and staffing; 30% to academics and 23% to staffing respectively. This included purchasing instructional resources and hiring new staff members to support diverse learners and to address learning loss. These two categories were prioritized across the charter sector, with schools spending funds not only on tutoring, literacy and math instructional materials, but also staff to implement these new resources. Some also found value in extending school hours and providing summer enrichment for students.
The next two priority spending areas to ensure continuity of learning were technology and facilities. 16 million students nationwide were impacted by the digital divide during the pandemic. Students needed devices, mobile hotspots, digital learning platforms or video conferencing software to succeed in the changing landscape. Charter schools allocated approximately 16% of their ESSER funds to support their students in this area. Facility spending was used to improve air filtration and HVAC systems and updating infrastructure to meet public health standards. Other areas of spending included physical and mental health and family support.
As we move into a post-pandemic world, many schools are rethinking their spending and continue to prioritize what matters most. Charter school leaders were asked to determine if each spending category held the same significance as the earlier days of the pandemic. In the 2022-2023 school year, two-thirds of school leaders believe that more emphasis should be placed on spending in academics, staffing, and mental health. This is a complete shift from 2021-2022 priorities that included physical health, facilities, and technology as the most critical spending areas. Since digital devices and health equipment are usually larger, one-time use purchases, there’s an expectation to see a decline in these spending areas.
With ESSER funds expiring in 2024, charter school leaders will need to make tough decisions on budget priorities and retaining talent funded through the grants. Elementary charter schools value spending on instructional support (licensed teachers, instructional assistants, and support staff) over secondary schools. In contrast, mental health support is now a priority for secondary school leaders. Staffing, student achievement, and mental health care of students are the focus areas of the next year and beyond. Educators nationwide are strategizing on ways to ensure that these areas are the least impacted, especially with the needs of current students.
Natasha Hamilton is a policy fellow at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.