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Leverage funding, gain ROI for your literacy investments (Part 1)

This two-part editorial series is designed to help educators maximize their funding and make the most out of their Tier 1, 2, and 3 literacy programs this year. A child’s learning time is too precious to squander. Read on, and we’ll show you how to make the most of their time and your time—and get the ROI you’re looking for in your phonics investment.

group of happy elementary students reading in their classroom

Optimize your ESSER funding to reduce the need for intervention

Achieve literacy success for all your students

Since the start of the pandemic, schools across the country have seen a massive influx of relief dollars under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. A critical deadline to commit those funds is looming this fall, and the final deadline is approaching fast in 2024. The goal of this 2-part post is to clarify where the current funding deadlines stand, how we got here, and how we can make the best use of funds before the deadlines to support evidence-based reading solutions, reduce the need for interventions, and support students who require interventions.

Let’s start with a little background on ESSER.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding for pandemic relief was released under three different acts, starting with ESSER I in March, 2020 under the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act). ESSER II funds were released under the CRSSA Act (Coronavirus Response & Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act) In December of 2020, and ESSER III funds were disbursed under the ARP Act (American Rescue Plan act) in March of 2021. ESSER III is also known as ARP ESSER.

The ESSER fund allocations made to each state are based on Title I (part A) funds. Title I funding is a complex system. Title I funding targets school districts and schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families “to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.” Originally created in 1965 by the US Department of Education under President Lyndon B. Johnson under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Title 1 has been reauthorized several times—in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and in 2015 with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). You can read more background on ESEA, NCLB, and ESSA here. And to learn more about how the Title 1 formulas work, Sarah Reber and Nora Gordon will take you on a “A deep dive on how Title I funds are allocated” on the Brookings Institute website.

Leverage the funds to avoid the cliff’s edge

An April 4, 2023 EdWeek article, “These 15 States Could Take the Biggest Hit as ESSER Funds Expire,” explains:

“Congress passed three rounds of relief aid totaling $190 billion for school districts during the first year of the pandemic. The deadline to commit the first round of funds, colloquially known as ESSER I, to specific expenses has already passed. Districts are required to commit the next round of funds by Sept. 30, 2024.”

The Education Week article highlights the challenge for districts and schools at this critical juncture, describing the deadlines as a potential “fiscal cliff” as ESSER pandemic relief funds end.

In this post we’ll help you think about how to optimize the use of funding before the funding allocation deadlines—ESSER II on September 30, 2023 and ESSER III on September 30, 2024. (Note: some states such as California have extended the expenditure plan deadline for ESSER III.)

How districts have spent funds to date

The past three years have seen “an unprecedented level of federal investment in K-12 schools.” With the allocation deadlines for ESSER II and III looming, school leaders need to consider how best to leverage these funds to help students recover the serious learning loss many have experienced.

It’s hard to get an accurate picture of how states and districts are spending ESSER funds—requirements for reporting of expenditures lag behind the allocation commitments, with some states and districts better at reporting than others. The U.S. Department of Education released their most current report in December, 2022 detailing how ESSER relief funds were spent in Fiscal Year 2021 (covering from the beginning of the pandemic up to June of 2021).

The Elementary and Secondary School Relief Emergency Relief Fund—2021 Report details:

A significant amount was spent on meeting critical staffing and personnel needs in states, districts, schools across the country. Specifically, the DOE reports that in “FY 2021, 44% of expended funds from subgrants to LEAs [Local Educational Agencies] were used for personnel, including salaries and benefits for additional staff and additional staff time to address the impacts of lost instructional time.”

The rationale is clear—the lower the student-teacher ratio, or more services provided at a school site for students with high needs—the better. But is that really the case in practice?

Identify the biggest outcome to commit your funds

There is an important and frequently missed first step before the focus on lowering the student-teacher ratio. As school leaders look to allocate and invest funding received to accelerate student achievement that was impacted during the years of the pandemic, we think this is a critical step: focus first on providing excellent Tier 1 instruction. No matter what other steps you take, you should always put the most emphasis here first.

Anella Wetter headshot

As educators, our imperative is to reach as many students as we can with high-quality, evidence-aligned instruction in Tier 1, and we must do it as efficiently as possible. We can’t compromise: we must know what we’re doing works for the vast majority of our students. There is no greater triumph for a teacher than seeing a class come alive with the joy of reading.

Anella Wetter


Chief Sales Officer at 95 Percent Group and a longtime educator

Provide the best Tier 1 instruction possible.

Why start with Tier 1? The most inexpensive and most impactful instruction that can be delivered at a school site is one teacher to many students. It is also the most gratifying.

To ensure the most effective use of your funds, start by focusing on providing the best Tier 1 instruction possible—with the right high quality, evidence-aligned instructional resources, we should be able to address the needs of 80-85% of our students, and reduce the need for additional Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports significantly.

Jo. Anna Grant, principal at Bailey Elementary School in Clark County, Nevada explained in a recent conversation:

“At Bailey we found an overwhelmingly high amount of students at risk for foundational skills, which in turn impacted their ability to read and write. We knew that the curriculum we were using was not meeting the needs of our primary students and we recognized a need for a research-based program. After engaging in my first session of the LETRS professional learning and the science of reading research, my sense of urgency to find a program grew even more. Through the LETRS program, I learned about the work of 95 Percent Group. I reached out to their customer service department and our partnership began. In order to have a more widespread impact we knew we had to act to address the Tier 1 gaps. It was truly a worthwhile investment.

We were able to reduce the number of students in need of intervention by targeting our Tier 1 instruction first. The best illustration of this is with Kindergarten. The Bailey Kindergarten students were given time and exposure to the 95 Phonics Core Program® in Tier 1, until December, prior to identifying students in need of intervention. At that time we only had a total of 20 students needing Tier 2 intervention. Out of those 20, after being provided with Tier 2 support using the 95 Phonics Lesson Library®, we exited six students from RTI and four were found eligible for special education services. The rest made steady gains toward meeting their goals and I’m confident with more time the students will meet their goals.”

Read more

In Part 2 of this series, we highlight how you can optimize your ESSER funding to reduce the need for intervention. We know what works. Let’s do it.

Let us help you

Reach out to see how we can help you optimize your ESSER funding to ensure all your students’ success. Contact us.

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