Early Signs of States’ CARES Act Education Spending Priorities

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

June 16, 2020

As Congress continues discussions on the next round of COVID funding, it’s still largely unclear how states are planning to spend the $16.2 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds under the CARES Act. ED has touted the flexibility of the funds, while encouraging states and districts to use the funds for “technology, distance learning resources, training and long-term planning.” The department also released guidance focused on allowable uses and how to distribute funds to districts.

States have been eligible to apply for the Governor’s fund since April 14th and the application for the larger pot of state funds opened on April 23rd. All states have now applied for and been awarded funds under both programs.

Last week, the US Department of Education published applications from all states for both ESSER and GEER funds. We reviewed all applications to get a better sense of how states are planning to use the funds with which they can conduct state policy, namely the governor’s fund and 9.5%[1] of the larger ESSER fund. We also reviewed state guidance that provided suggestions on how LEA’s should spend their share of federal relief funds under ESSER.

State Actions

How states and districts will ultimately spend their relief money is still emerging, as they have a great degree of discretion. We’ve compiled the guidance and plans—and included relevant links—that states had published as of 6/10 in the table below. On most measures, we’ve seen an uptick in transparency since our last update, however 6 states have still published no information on CARES Act funding.

  • Of the states that have applied for funds, only ten have published their applications online: Kentucky and Tennessee have posted both their GEER and ESSER applications; Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have published their ESSER applications. This is an increase of 4 states since our last CARES Act update.
  • Another 20 states have released information on priorities or suggestions for uses of CARES Act funds. This is an increase of 4 states since our last CARES Act update.
  • 16 other states have released guidance or FAQs, but these documents are much broader and largely reiterate provisions and allowable uses as stated in the CARES Act. This is an increase of 3 states since our last CARES Act update.
  • 33 states have released estimated LEA allocations (which are simply equal to each district’s current share of Title I funds), to allow districts to start planning how they will use funds. This is an increase of 7 states since our last CARES Act update.

Louisiana stands out as moving most aggressively in their planning process and distribution of funds. On May 1st, the state distributed $260 million of $287 million ESSER funds while simultaneously releasing comprehensive guidance on funding priorities designed to address the most pressing needs when schools reopen. The state plans on distributing the rest of the funds using competitive grants, based on alignment with state priorities. North Dakota has also been very transparent about its process: the state’s Department of Public Instruction has published its ESSER application and clear guidance for districts and has conducted three related training sessions. Kentucky and Tennessee are also leading states in transparency; both states have published their ESSER and GEER fund applications, and Kentucky also has separate documents laying out state priorities for each fund.

Other states are currently working on engaging various stakeholders in how to use funds; Alabama, Colorado, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming have released surveys to solicit ideas on how best to use the state’s discretionary funds and Arkansas has convened a working group to discuss funding priorities. Similarly, South Carolina is soliciting questions from district leaders to help shape their forthcoming guidance.

[1] The ESSER fund state set aside is 10%, with 0.5% reserved for administrative costs.


Statewide Spending Priorities

Now that ED has released all of the ESSER and GEER applications, we have a somewhat better sense of what states are planning, particularly regarding the state-level funds. In 24 states, however, those plans are very vague as they indicate on one or both applications that they were still engaging stakeholders and have set no concrete plans or priorities for use of funds. However, among the states that have released some information on how they will spend federal funds, some clear priorities emerge.

Given the focus on the digital divide during school closures, it’s no surprise that technology is the most common state priority, with 38 states focused on increasing connectivity through digital devices and access to Wi-Fi, using GEER and/or ESSER side-aside funds. A majority of states (30) are also prioritizing professional development for teachers related to distance education. And 20 states are planning to invest in learning management software to streamline digital learning for districts and provide high-quality digital curriculum and instructional resources. Additionally, 14 will fund supports for students with disabilities, and 11 states are planning to allocate funds to support district efforts to provide family supports around distance learning.  Together these priorities highlight states’ continued struggle to adjust to distance learning, as well as the reality that it won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

We are also seeing states beginning to focus on upcoming challenges. Sixteen states plan to fund social-emotional learning or mental health initiatives to ensure students are ready to access curriculum after experiencing COVID-related trauma. Additionally, seven states have stated commitments to use statewide funds to support efforts to stem learning loss through summer programming.

A few states are also starting to consider staffing concerns. Tennessee is planning on using ESSER set-aside funds to stem likely teacher shortages by investing in grow-your-own teacher recruitment programs, while Pennsylvania is planning to facilitate collaboration between local districts and teacher preparation programs. And Illinois is developing a virtual coaching system to support new teachers as they begin their teaching career at least partially remotely.

Click here to see detailed charts of individual state priorities for GEER and ESSER set-aside funds.

State Priorities and Suggested Uses for LEAs

While a substantial amount of money was allocated to governors and state agencies to use at their discretion, the vast majority of CARES Act education funds were allocated directly to LEAs using ESSA’s Title I formula, and districts have a lot of flexibility in how to use these funds. We get that states may want to uphold the tradition of local control. Nonetheless the apparent lack of willingness on the part of states to demand access and equity in instructional practices does not bode well for students from historically disadvantaged groups when schools re-open in the Fall. As of 6/10, only 16 states have issued guidance with direct suggestions or stated priorities for district funds. Two states—Louisiana and Oklahoma—have also provided incentives for districts, by providing competitive grants for LEAs that use ESSER funds to align to state priorities.

State suggestions for district spending of main ESSER funds largely align with plans for GEER and ESSER set-aside funds, with all states encouraging districts to spend federal funds on technology for distance learning and most suggesting professional development, mental health services, digital curriculum, and learning management systems. This overlap may indicate the scope of the challenges states and districts are facing due to school closures, with no single pot of money able to adequately address schools’ needs.

In addition to these shared priorities, states’ suggestions are laser focused on providing supports for students most impacted by extended school closures. Half of the states that have issued specific guidance are explicitly urging LEAs to direct funding to support at-risk students, and six are advocating for ESSER funds to support students for disabilities, such as increase accessibility in digital learning environments. Additionally, seven states are encouraging districts to use CARES dollars to fund summer school programs aimed at remediating students before they return to school in the fall in an attempt to combat the “COVID slide,” with Florida indicating it will have both remote and in-person small group learning; and, six are suggesting districts direct some funds to intensive academic interventions. Four states—CT, IN, LA, and UT—have also suggested LEAs use an extended school day and/or year using federal funds to address lost instructional time in the spring.

One of the top priorities among suggested uses for ESSER funds—infrastructure and equipment for reopening—indicates one main area where states are delegating clear authority to local districts, as no states indicated this as a use of GEER and ESSER set-aside funds.


State applications for funds give us a glimpse into how states plan to use COVID funds, however few have indicated how much will be provided across the list of priorities. Increased guidance on the part of states, particularly around suggestions on how districts can maximize funds by not duplicating statewide efforts, would provide a clearer roadmap for districts as they continue to plan for summer programs and fall reopening options, as well as clearly illuminate gaps in funding for lawmakers considering additional relief.