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Investing in Arts Education

Local School Districts Can Use ESSER Funds to Support Arts Education

Federal ESSER funding dedicates $190 billion to public education. Arts education, an allowable expense under ESSER, is crucial to help learners recover from the pandemic.


Jamie Kasper

Director, Arts Education Partnership

In May 2021, the U.S. Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, providing more than $120 billion in funding for K-12 schools. These funds are part of the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which total $190 billion. ESSER funds are flowing from the U.S. Department of Education to state education agencies to local school districts, and these local districts will receive about 90% of the funding. The funding legislation requires states to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education for how they intend to use ESSER funding; over the past few months, states have been working on aligning their plans to their communities’ goals.

We know from research that arts education benefits learners in many ways. It makes them better artists, meaning they’re better at seeing, hearing, moving, and using materials to create. Arts education also improves students’ self-regulation, helps them to connect and relate to others, improves their skill in expressing their ideas and responding to the ideas of others, and makes them more aware of and excited to participate in the world around them. When we think about students’ experiences since spring 2020, these are skills that will help them process trauma and recover from the pandemic. If these skills are important and arts education is key to fostering them, how can local school districts use ESSER funds to support arts education?

ESSER fund uses

There are many allowable uses for ESSER funds, many of which can directly or indirectly support arts education:

  • Any activity already authorized by various pieces of federal education legislation.
  • Coordination among local education agencies and other agencies to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19.
  • Sanitation and safety training and professional development for staff.
  • Sanitation and cleaning supplies.
  • Facility repairs and improvements.
  • Improving indoor air quality.
  • Addressing unique needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, and other populations.
  • Developing procedures and systems for schools to be more prepared and ready to respond.
  • Coordination of services during long-term closures.
  • Educational technology and equipment for students.
  • Mental health services and supports.
  • Summer and afterschool programs.
  • Addressing learning loss.
  • Other activities necessary to maintain services and continue to employ existing staff.

Investing in the arts

Schools might choose to use ESSER funding to partner with local arts organizations to provide community-connected arts experiences for students. They could embed teaching artists trained in trauma-informed learning or hire arts therapists to supplement care provided by school psychologists. Districts could also purchase extra supplies and equipment, so students don’t need to share in media arts and visual arts classrooms. They could pay for additional training for dance teachers to help them teach hybrid dance classes where some students are in-studio and some are at home.

For music and theatre classes, districts might purchase special masks for singers and actors. Some schools would benefit from starting or expanding arts-based, summer learning and afterschool programs to increase achievement in the arts and other content areas.

Another way districts could use these funds to support arts education is by maintaining arts staffing. In December 2020, Chalkbeat and the Associated Press estimated a 2% drop in student enrollment, which is more than 500,000 students nationwide. As school enrollment declines, many schools will adjust staffing, and sometimes these schools disproportionately cut or eliminate staff positions in the arts compared to other content areas. ESSER funds can allow districts to maintain those arts positions, keeping programs intact and providing students with a sequential, uninterrupted arts education. Our nation’s schools face an unprecedented challenge as they continue to bring students back to campus.

Schools will be tasked with caring for students as they process collective trauma, shepherding their learning and figuring out what the next iteration of this thing called “school” will be. The arts in all their forms will be a necessary part of the work to help schools, staff, and students recover. ESSER funding gives them the lever to make it happen.

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