Local education leaders are working feverishly to strategically invest more than $189 billion in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, or ESSER, to address both immediate student needs and catalyze long-term system redesign. Less attention has been paid to how state education leaders can use their power to support, and even accelerate, district-level efforts.

Here are five ways state policymakers and advocates can take advantage of ESSER funding to shape the path for meaningful change in schools and school districts, based on our work supporting district ESSER networks in Tennessee and across the country:

1. Highlight research-based strategies to guide district prioritization.

The Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act provides significant flexibility for states to  support districts in making good choices to maximize federal funds. To help local leaders focus planning and investments, states can outline a narrower set of research-based, high-impact strategies to drive both recovery and lasting, sustainable improvement. In Tennessee and Massachusetts, for example, the state education agencies provide districts with curated lists of evidence-based strategies to inform local decision-making. State education agencies can use their 10 percent set aside to further augment local investments in a targeted set of evidence-based practices. 

2. Provide targeted implementation support for common, high-potential strategies.

Because they are charged with approving every district plan, states can identify needs across submitted state plans and concentrate their design and implementation support on the areas or places with the greatest need as well as convene districts to learn from each other. In Tennessee, SCORE partnered with Education Resource Strategies to convene a monthly cohort of districts as they devise coherent, doable strategies for organizing school schedules and staffing to implement their ESSER plan components. Similarly, the Indiana Department of Education engaged districts in a community of practice to support ESSER planning and implementation.

3. Make high-quality curricular options, backed by professional learning, available to all districts.

One of the most effective strategies for boosting student learning is providing robust professional learning for teachers aligned to a high-quality curriculum. However, many school and district leaders struggle to find the time and information necessary to make good decisions about curricula. States can help by vetting high-quality curricular resources and professional learning structures and incentivizing their adoption. The CURATE program in Massachusetts leverages reviews and ratings from teachers across the state to assess the quality of specific curricular materials as well as their alignment to state education frameworks. The state offers grants and streamlines procurement efforts for products that earn CURATE’s “meets expectations” rating.

4. Broaden the universe of talent who can support recovery and redesign.

District leaders nationwide are facing a historically challenging labor market that is preventing them from filling roles they envisioned in their ESSER plans. State policymakers can offer flexibilities to districts seeking to expand traditional talent pools and tap nontraditional ones. Massachusetts, for example, adjusted its licensure and staffing requirements to support district recovery efforts, including an emergency license offering and temporary waiver of restrictions limiting the amount of time a retired educator may work. In Metro Nashville Public Schools, the Accelerating Scholars high-dosage tutoring program is leveraging teachers as well as community members and college students to broaden the talent pool supporting learning recovery.

5. Establish a long-term vision that inspires big thinking for the future.

The challenges of the moment often stymie district plans to build toward a long-term vision for improvement. State leaders can put strategic stakes in the ground to inspire that work, sustain district and school leaders’ sense of possibility, and point the way to transformative change. For example, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act adds billions in state funding over the next decade, as well as accountability for how those dollars are spent, to “enable Maryland’s pre-K-12 system to perform at the level of the best-performing systems in the world.” Tennessee also is reviewing its funding model with a lens toward serving students more equitably.

States have an important role to play in helping district leaders seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity ESSER offers. By listening to districts, clearing barriers, sharing resources, and codesigning programs to meet their needs, states can be critical partners as districts adapt, revise, and implement strategies to make real impact.

Dr. Ventura Rodriguez is a partner at Education Resources Strategies. Dr. Sharon Roberts is chief K-12 impact officer at SCORE.