In response to the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, states have received a historic $190.5 billion in federal K-12 education relief funding across three stimulus packages.

Last spring, when states received the first tranche of $13.5 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund created by the CARES Act, governors and state education agencies were largely responsible for implementing the funds while legislatures were out of session due to the pandemic. This spring, state legislatures have been far more active in reviewing and directing the latest two rounds of ESSER funds, which total $54 billion and $123.5 billion, respectively. While 90% of ESSER funds flow directly to school districts, states are allowed to reserve up to 10% of funds for statewide use.

While many legislatures authorized the allocation of ESSER funds through their budget process, some also provided direction on the 10% state set-aside or passed legislation to serve as guidance for district spending of relief funds. Based on a review of ESSER-related legislation, legislatures have pursued a range of strategies to meet the academic and mental health needs of students impacted by the pandemic.

Legislation on Statewide ESSER Funds

Some legislatures allocated portions of the 10% ESSER set-aside to provide additional funds to districts. Since federal funds flowed to districts via the federal Title I formula, some districts received relatively little relief, or none at all if they did not enroll any eligible students.

In response to funding gaps between districts, New York lawmakers allocated the full ESSER II set-aside and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER II) funds to provide school districts of lower wealth with a minimum per pupil allocation. Wisconsin established a minimum grant amount of $100,000 for all school districts with ESSER II funds. Wisconsin also allocated additional funding to districts that did not reach $395 in per pupil funding based partly on the total number of in-person instructional hours a district provided in the 2020-21 school year. Idaho appropriated $6.1 million of ESSER II funds to charter schools, which saw significant enrollment increases during the pandemic.

While states are required to use portions of the ESSER III state set-aside to fund learning recovery initiatives and summer and afterschool programs, many state legislatures were already pursuing a variety of strategies with earlier rounds of ESSER funds to close learning gaps and address student social and emotional well-being. Michigan lawmakers appropriated $152.4 million of the ESSER II state set-aside to K-8 summer school programs, before- and afterschool programs, and high school credit recovery programs. North Carolina appropriated $70 million of the ESSER II state set-aside for mental health support services in schools and funded the “NC Schools Go Outside” grant program to provide local opportunities for learning experiences in outdoor settings. The Vermont Legislature appropriated $6.8 million of the ESSER III state set-aside toward literacy initiatives and a grant program for schools with wraparound support services. Washington state provided funding to identify youth experiencing homelessness and provide them with wraparound services.

Assessing student academic progress during and after the pandemic has also been a major focus for legislators. The Virginia Legislature directed $8.8 million of the ESSER state set-aside to develop a “through year” student growth assessment in grades three through eight. Michigan allocated $4.9 million toward benchmark assessments.

Legislative Guidance on Use of Funds

While federal guidance prohibits states from limiting how districts can spend their relief funds, many states have passed legislation that provides guidance to encourage districts to employ evidence-based strategies.

Tennessee passed legislation that guides districts in implementing afterschool learning mini camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps that focus on COVID-related learning loss. Similarly, North Carolina passed legislation to support a six-week, in-person summer program that could be funded by district ESSER funds. A bill in Arkansas established a tutoring corps that will create a system to recruit, prepare and support candidates to become qualified tutors to support the students most impacted by lost instructional time. Kentucky’s Legislature established the Supplemental School Year Program, which can be supported by ESSER funds. The program allows students enrolled during the 2020-21 school year to use the 2021-22 school year as a supplemental year to retake or supplement courses the student already has taken.

NCSL will continue to track how states are using federal COVID-19 funds for education.

Jocelyn Salguero is a policy associate in NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office, working with the Budgets and Revenue and Education committees. Austin Reid is the education committee director in NCSL’s State-Federal Division.