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  • Writer's pictureJillian Helding

Using Lessons Learned from ESSER to Improve Grant Programs

As the deadline for obligating the first round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds approaches, many schools are scrambling to spend their remaining money. Others are worried about the looming fiscal cliff they’ll face when the funds run out, which could require them to end successful intervention programs and cut staff hired during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, state education agencies and other pass-through entities can help.

In this article, we’ll go over some immediate solutions you can use to help schools spend their ESSER funds before the deadline. We’ve also included longer-term steps you can implement for future funding opportunities, based on lessons learned from ESSER programs.

A diverse group of high school students sitting on the floor in front of a row of lockers, laughing and talking.

Why Aren't Schools Spending Their ESSER Funding?

In media reports nationwide and our own experiences with clients, we’ve heard some recurring themes concerning why schools aren’t spending ESSER funds:

  • They don’t know which expenses are allowable (and haven’t received firm answers when asking for clarification).

  • They don’t have a clear picture of all the areas of need in their school, district, or community.

  • The areas of need they’ve identified require broader community involvement to address.

  • The areas of need they’ve identified are already being addressed using other streams of grant funding; using ESSER funds would lead to duplication of benefits.

  • They find the process of applying for or justifying the use of funds cumbersome and time-consuming.

  • They don’t feel prepared to manage the reporting and compliance requirements associated with ESSER funding.

  • They lack appropriate staff to manage new projects and initiatives.

  • They don’t have the funding in their regular budgets to continue new programs or staff positions after ESSER expires.

  • The state office responsible for managing the ESSER funds isn’t the same office that has authority over the funds, and so cannot effectively make decisions or answer questions.

What Can State Education Agencies and Pass-Through Entities Do?

Before Establishing a Grant Program

Before you establish a grant program or distribute funding, ask the following questions:

1. Is funding for the initiative you're considering already available from another agency?

If so, how can you and the other agency work cooperatively to enhance the existing program, or alter your plans to cover an area of need it isn’t meeting? Breaking down silos can be hard, but worthwhile. Fostering inter-agency communication and collaboration helps states make better use of grant funds and increases capacity and resources for executing programs that improve people’s lives.

2. Is the area of need you're trying to meet something communities are asking for?

It’s easy to look at a problem and assume we know what’s needed to fix it. However, if you don’t start by asking the people impacted by the problem what they want, you run the risk of being wrong and alienating important stakeholders. Particularly in the world of education, we encourage you to begin any new initiative by doing your research. Talk to schools, students, families, and education-adjacent non-profits or community businesses; ask them what their pain points are and what resources they need to address them. Figure out where their needs intersect, and which ones are the most pressing. You’ll probably be surprised by what you learn.

3. Is the state office that received/has authority over the Federal funding going to be responsible for executing the grant program?

Depending on the size and structure of your state’s department of education, Federal funding may be received and managed by one office or team, while the day-to-day work of executing the program it pays for may fall to another. If that’s the case, who from the program management team will be present in any meetings with the Federal agency that provided the funding? How will you ensure they have direct access to someone who can answer their questions? While the receiving office can act as a middleman, we advise against this approach; playing telephone leads to delays, miscommunications, and reduces transparency and accountability.

After Launching a Grant Program

Once your grant program is underway, consider adopting the following measures:

1. Streamline your grant application, management, and oversight processes.

School administrators are frequently overworked and understaffed. State education agencies can relieve some of the burden by streamlining processes for receiving, managing, and monitoring grant funds, allowing administrators to focus on serving students and families. This might include reducing the amount of information certain forms ask for, adopting new technology to centralize and simplify document submission, or providing templates and step-by-step instructions for important processes, such as monitoring reviews. For more examples, check out 5 Ways to Improve the Monitoring Review Experience for Subrecipients and Grantees or 10 Ways to Improve Your Monitoring. Many of the suggestions can be adapted for use in other administrative areas!

2. Think big; provide funding for community involvement and big-picture solutions.

Schools across the country have gotten creative with their ESSER funding, addressing issues that impact student success, but which weren’t obviously important at first glance. Some spent the money on upgrading school buses or expanding routes to increase attendance. Others expanded free breakfast and lunch programs for underprivileged students to promote health and wellness. Still, others funded after-school or summer programming and community-based learning programs to meet the learning needs of a broader range of students and protect at-risk youth. These types of initiatives often involve participation from non-profits, community organizations, and local businesses. Thinking outside the box—and providing funding for organizations beyond schools themselves—can create lasting impacts on the educational ecosystem.

3. Provide comprehensive support and technical assistance for subrecipients and small organizations.   

Educators and school administrators don’t necessarily have expertise in compliance, grant management, or project management. Providing them with resources, training, and support in these areas improves outcomes for schools and state education agencies. Offer robust technical assistance—not just a one-time PowerPoint presentation!—such as quarterly virtual or live training sessions, defined lists of allowable and unallowable expenses, written guidance on state regulations and policy, and standardized templates for any required reporting.

4. Be prepared to make decisions and stand by them in the absence of Federal guidance.

Some programs, like ESSER, are intentionally designed with flexibility in mind. As such, Federal agencies may leave important decisions, like the allowability of specific expenses, up to the discretion of each state. While it’s tempting to provide broad guidance out of fear of being held responsible for non-compliance, this only discourages subrecipients and grantees from spending funds. It also makes accidental non-compliance much more likely. Be bold; clearly define what recipients can and can’t spend money on (and why), and what supporting information is required to justify those expenditures. If the Federal agency has questions or alters their guidance down the road, you’re better off being able to share a documented rationale for your decisions and proof that funds were spent accordingly.

5. Conduct entrance and exit surveys and use them to gauge program effectiveness.

Earlier in the article, we talked about the importance of doing stakeholder research before a grant program gets off the ground. Once the program is underway, we encourage state education agencies to work with their school districts to conduct entrance and exit surveys, especially in the case of temporary funding, such as ESSER. Take the opportunity to dig into the needs of individual schools, their districts, and the program management team. Find out what worked and what didn’t, and brainstorm solutions for the future. Identify any unexpected outcomes, both positive and negative, and consider their implications for future funding or other grant programs. Finally, compare the program’s outcomes against the initial plan: did the funding help solve the issues it was meant to address? Was it used efficiently and in compliance with local, state, and Federal regulations?      


Overwhelmed? We can help!

The Vander Weele Group provides turn-key oversight solutions for federal and state grant programs. We specialize in monitoring large-scale programs nationwide, combining grants monitoring expertise with industry-specific program experience. The firm offers traditional fiscal and compliance reviews, programmatic monitoring, risk assessments, internal control reviews, data analytics to detect fraud, best practice recommendations, and technical assistance for grantees.

To consult a grants oversight expert, call 773-929-3030 or email us at

For more grants monitoring, oversight, and technical assistance resources, visit our Resource Library.


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