And, why is it important?
The Elementary & Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds are federal dollars that will be invested in public education over the next few years as part of the American Rescue Plan and other federal stimulus packages. Over $189 billion have been specifically allocated for public education through ESSER, $581.6 million of which are for Rhode Island. In summer 2021, we produced fact sheets (Spanish translation) outlining how much each individual school district in RI was estimated to receive.
These funds provide us with an opportunity to invest in not just relief from what we’ve missed or lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also in setting up our school systems for success in the future. Our fact sheet also highlighted that funds can be used for a wide variety of supports and improvements for our schools. This includes things like curriculum improvements and enrichment, social emotional and academic student supports, family engagement and student leadership, building renovations, and more.
ESSER and community engagement
We believe that the people closest to and most impacted by the challenges we face in our schools should have a direct say over how we look to address them. Accordingly, federal guidelines require local school districts and states to seek and incorporate community engagement in determining how to use ESSER funds. That means students, families, and frontline educators–those of us who are closest to the challenges we face in our schools–-should be engaged in decisions about how ESSER money is used.
While districts have all been planning for how to use these funds and have shared plans with the RI Department of Education (RIDE), there is an expectation that plans will be monitored and can be modified every 6 months. While many of these funds are being used immediately, they do not have to decide and commit to how funds will be used until 2023 and districts can request a one-year extension to spend the money. All of this means communities can and should continue to have an influence over how they are used.
What we’ve experienced/found in RI
In February and March 2022, over 500 people responded to a community survey we distributed. Our survey engaged mostly students (59% of respondents), but also included parents (17%), educators (10%), and other community members (14%). The majority of respondents were from Providence (52%), with others from Cranston (22%), Pawtucket (14%), Central Falls (4%), and other communities (8%) throughout the state.
Of the respondents to our survey, 73% reported that they had not been informed or engaged about ESSER funds in their school district. Over 81% said they did not know who to contact in their district to discuss the use of these funds. These overwhelming response rates underscore how little awareness there is about such an important opportunity to support and improve public education in RI.
In addition, as our team did research on trying to identify promising practices for community engagement about ESSER spending, throughout the country we were met with difficulty finding examples that went beyond traditional forums and surveys. This is a trend we have identified not just in RI, but nationally.
What can/should we do?
We encourage students, families, and community members in RI to get more engaged in how their school districts are using ESSER funds. And, we encourage more innovative practices for districts to remove barriers to engagement and support and facilitate more students, families, and community members to be part of processes that determine how funds are used.