Analysis outlines how LEAs can center equity while preparing for the ESSER fiscal cliff

Research published by The Brookings Institution in September considers the implications that the end of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) dollars will have on student equity.

The analysis determined that local educational agencies serving the largest number of high-need students will have their school budgets most severely impacted, partially due to how ESSER funding was structured. Researchers offered suggestions that state and local leaders can consider as spending deadlines loom.

The situation

While there was no way of predicting how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect K-12 systems and their students and no precedent to follow, there are early warning signs of the next major disruption that education faces — financial hardships brought on by the end of federal relief dollars in combination with declining enrollment and slowing state revenues, according to the analysis.

Academic results prove that higher-need students suffered the most from the public health crisis, and if not addressed, history may repeat itself.

The ESSER program intended to offer the greatest fiscal support for high-need schools, but as the end of ESSER nears, this will leave those districts with more to cut from their most recent annual budgets. Most districts are on track to meet spending deadlines although some LEAs with the largest shares of students living in poverty are spending at a slower rate than their more affluent peers, even in California.

LEAs have spent a total of $60 billion in ESSER money per year for the last few years. “That leaves states and districts staring down a massive fiscal cliff. While amounts vary across districts, on average, that equates to a single-year reduction in spending of over $1,000 per student,” according to the analysis.

Districts will need to rectify their budgets, which could mean cuts to staffing, programming or extracurriculars that they could only afford because of the federal relief. Some may need to close schools, increase class sizes or push back pay raises.

Researchers worry that having to weigh these decisions will make it hard for LEA leaders to focus on improving student outcomes and community dynamics. Moreover, there are concerns that spending cuts could lead to more staff turnover in high-need schools and hinder progress toward diversifying the educator workforce.

Depending on the state, finance policies like “hold harmless” agreements to address cuts caused by declining enrollment could impact attention to equity-centered efforts.


At the state level, researchers suggest leaders examine whether proposed changes to revenue structures make economic sense and find ways to keep equity efforts intact. LEA leaders can also evaluate their layoff policies to ensure staffing cuts don’t undermine diversity efforts.

In LEAs with significant reserves, money may be used to reduce budgets in a gradual way. However, putting funds into reserves shouldn’t be a priority over pressing student needs, researchers said.