The Number One Question Every Principal Leader Must Ask Before Spending ESSER Funds

by | Jul 4, 2021 | 0 comments

13 min read

Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are. ~ James W. Frick

Is Education Underfunded? 

This question is rhetorical. It’s a fun one to discuss for fireside chats and dinner table debates. On one side, we would argue that education is underfunded, making the case that teacher pay needs improvements and many schools need infrastructure repairs. On the other side, an argument might be made that such a large bureaucratic industrial complex has excess and waste where accountability should be improved, if not a systemic overhaul. 

This post isn’t intended to address the concern with educational funding formulas, although we wrote about the need for teacher salary changes in our newest book. The point here, rather, is to help leaders with decision-making about the funds they do have, including the new installments of ESSER money. School leaders must be good stewards and understand how to turn available resources into transformational change.  

The number one question that every leader must ask before spending any dollar in any school is this: how will this purchase build the capacity of the people to do the work in the future? 

One argument that we do make regarding education and spending is that we don’t always do the best job with sustainability, especially when our funding streams have expiration dates. Quick fixes that promise to make a difference or mend a gap are attractive. These promises, coupled with our deep desire to make things better, get us into trouble when we want to buy something that we can’t afford and sustain over the long haul. It’s why schools fall into what we call the Lilypad Effect–long-term visions supported by short-term solutions, where we jump from one initiative to the other as resources become available or a change in administration is rampant. This only results in initiative-fatigue and disillusionment with leadership at the school, district, state, and federal level. Now, with the initiation of ESSER funds, we have great potential to improve our schools, but we need to be careful about how we spend the money. There are many lessons we learned from No Child Left Behind and the installments of money that many schools received.The number one way that you can make sure that your ESSER funds are sustainable is to use them to build capacity.  

What is ESSER and How Will Funds Be Distributed?

The following excerpt was taken directly from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Congress set aside approximately $13.2 billion of the $30.75 billion allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund). Signed into law on March 20, 2021, the Department awarded these grants ­to State educational agencies (SEAs) for the purpose of providing local educational agencies (LEAs), including charter schools that are 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.

You can get a state-by-state breakdown of the funding allocations from the National Conference of State Legislatures and a popular example of how funds are being distributed and reported upon can be found at the California Department of Education website. The bottom line is that the money is provided through a grant program, and as far as anyone can tell, the dollars run out after they’re spent over the next two year period. 

We Did Your School Funding Homework for You

At this point, you might be scratching your temple. Asking yourself: how do I build capacity for the sake of sustainability? It’s a great question. It’s why we break down school funding–all school funding–into three primary spending buckets. It doesn’t matter from which budget you’re spending, you should think of your pot of money in these three ways: 

Spend Your Money By Paying Your People

If you ask us what the best money spent on teaching and learning in schools is, we’ll always say “people” first. Whether it’s paying someone to run your after school programs or overtime for custodians to do a deeper clearing in the summer, your money is well spent on people. Here’s a tip: for the sake of sustainability, think about your people as builders. Even if you can’t buy a program in perpetuity, you can buy people on timesheets to build something (a program or resource) that can outlast any contractor you might be able to afford for the short term. 

Spend Your Money on Resources for Your People

One of the number one things that people cite as the reason they’re grumpy at work is that they don’t have the resources necessary to do their jobs well. If you’ve ever been in classroom where the teacher hung showerboard on the walls because she wanted white boards but the school couldn’t afford them, then you know what we’re talking about. It’s too common of a problem in education, but if you start to think about your budget as having only these three levers, you’ll put more money in this bucket then you might have before. Here’s a tip: when we say “resources,” we’re not necessarily talking about learning resources but the actual physical resources that teachers need to be at their best. 

Spend Your Money on Professional Learning Experiences for Your People

When budgets get tight, the first line item that districts look to cut is professional learning experiences. Bad idea and unnecessary. When budgets are tight, the best place to invest is in your people. In learning cultures, professional learning never gets cut; it might become creative, but it’s set as a core value rather than just a spending item. Growing people is the responsibility of the leader and that should always be a top priority. Professional learning experiences likely have the highest ROI for retention, capacity-building, and sustaining a positive school culture than any other item we can list. Here’s a tip: conduct a professional learning survey to find out the areas and aspects of each person’s role where they want to grow and become stronger in the next 3-5 years. 

The Top Five Ways to Spend Your ESSER Funds

All five of the following resources are investments in people so that your ESSER funds, even after they run out, are sustainable through the new and improved skills that staff will gain from implementation. Note: we are not currently sponsored nor do we accept direct payment from any of these sources. We believe in them as good decisions for where to spend money in education. 

Enroll Yourself or a School Leader Who You Support in a Mastermind Program 

When leaders get better, everyone they serve benefits. That’s the core tenet of Danny Bauer’s Mastermind in terms of a theory of action. Mastermind groups have been a way to sharpen skills through the use of like-minded yet diverse collection of leaders for centuries. These groups meet on a recurring and regular basis to learn from one another and present problems of practice that we either all have in common or that one or more people have already solved for themselves. Danny, who wrote Better Leaders Better Schools also just released Mastermind, which explains the ample rewards of being in a Mastermind. 

Consider using COVID19 relief funds to join a Mastermind group for professional learning for either yourself as a principal or a leader you support (principal or assistant principal). You can typically pay off a Mastermind in one chunk for the year versus a monthly fee so these funds, even though they expire, are a good way to invest in leadership. Making a leadership investment is sustainable, versus buying a program that you can’t afford when the money runs out, because your leadership growth will not expire. There are other groups besides Better Leaders Better Schools, but we like Danny’s model as an example of a Mastermind that we know works for school leaders. 

Support Teachers and Students as They Return to In-Person Instruction with Organized Binder

Organized Binder is a proven system that equips educators with a protocol to create predictable learning routines. From goal setting to retrieval practice, OB helps both teachers and students get and stay organized. OB is a tactile resource that supports all kinds of learning needs, including career and technical education, students with disabilities, core instruction, and the overall success of any student. We like it because it supports the research regarding cognitive science and self-efficacy (among other features), and it builds habits and routines that are transferable in any aspect of life where you need to use organization skills.

Organized Binder is a wonderful use of ESSER, ELO (if in CA), Title 1, and CTE funds. For reasons that include learning loss, when students return to school, parents will thank you if every student has an Organized Binder for each of their classes.

Enroll Your New Teachers in a New Teacher Mastermind 

For similar reasons as we mentioned above, enrolling new teachers into a Mastermind has tons of benefits. There may not be any more vulnerable group than teachers who started their careers just before, during, or right after the pandemic hit. Any teacher new to the profession was already susceptible to burnout, but being a new teacher during a crisis is a crisis. The solution is a new teacher Mastermind group where they won’t suffer from isolation and fear of not being good enough. 

We like the Teacher Off Duty model because we’ve seen it work. It’s all about getting new teachers together in a support group to solve problems and lean on one another when the going gets tough. We consider this a retention strategy as well as an acceleration strategy for new teachers’ skills. Whatever you do, consider using ESSER funds to support new teachers; they need our help, and we simply cannot afford to lose teachers over the next few years.  

Purchase TeachFX for Your Schools to Improve Student Discourse  

TeachFX is a great resource for any size school or budget because their pricing isn’t fixed (meaning they’ll work with you on your specific needs), and they don’t just provide a tool; they offer professional development. If you don’t know about TeachFX, the simple explanation is that they invented a technology that tracks the percentages of classroom time dedicated to student versus teacher talk. In other words, the software, when used by a teacher, generates data regarding how much time students get to talk throughout a lesson. Used for everything from reflecting on the types of questions teachers are asking to the equity of the demographics of the learners who are doing most of the talking, we can’t say enough about the benefits of implementing TeachFX

ESSER funds are a perfect way to get started with TeachFX and getting kids talking in the classroom is going to be even harder after the pandemic when they may come back with a hint of shyness and in a time when teachers might feel like they need to “cover” so much unlearned content. TeachFX can give your staff the data to slow down, ask the right questions, provide needed think-time, and let the kids handle the rest. Let’s all work to give our students the voice they deserve in every classroom. If your school or district is talking about SEL and equity, like so many are around the country, take a look at this tool.  

Build a Brain-Based Teaching and Learning Library of Resources for Teachers 

We don’t believe that there is enough emphasis in education–from teacher prep to professional learning–on the concepts being studied by cognitive and neuro scientists. For students to truly retain what they’ve learned, teachers need to implement the strategies that the brain research indicates have the highest effect sizes on memory. With that said, schools shouldn’t wait to begin exploring the science by building a library of resources for teachers. “Learning loss” isn’t just mitigated by extra time programs and online platforms. A stronger, better equipped, teacher for every student when they return is a great place to invest. 

We recommend only the books that we curate from the lists we have in our own libraries. There are three titles that we believe all schools should be reading to support teacher development. 

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain 

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham 

Make It Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel 

All three are fantastic books for educators. We listed them from most practical to most scientific. They all dive deep into the science of learning, but Powerful Teaching is very teacher-friendly, Why Don’t Students Like School? will challenge your conventions, and Make It Stick explains very complex research in a digestible way. Read them for different reasons, but read all three.  

The Next Big Thing with School Funding 

Consider multi-year contracts. Because ESSER funds are frontloaded and then expire, for the sake of sustainability, consider multi-year contracts for support and services. For example, you can buy slots for Mastermind groups and if you don’t use them, you can save them for future dates. You can also buy someone a Mastermind experience and pay for 24 months rather than 12. For a teacher who plans to use a class set of Organized Binder, consider buying 3 years worth of the materials. TeachFX can be purchased on a multi-year contract. Finally, and especially in this case, anywhere you plan to work with a trainer or consultant, consider stretching the contact out to gain access to their host of implementation strategies over a period of years rather than months. Sustainability is an issue in education because we think of money and spending in terms of fiscal years; it’s time for that to change and ESSER is the best place to start.

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

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TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 
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