ESSER and IDEA Stimulus Funding for Special Education


Within the three federal stimulus bills that have been authorized for education, there are two sources of funds that are especially relevant to special education: the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


ESSER Stimulus Funding for Special Education

ESSER funds can be used for a variety of needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, including funding for special education programs. An exhaustive list of approved spending categories is available here: American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021.

There is approximately $190B in K-12 ESSER funding available in the three COVID-19 Stimulus Bills passed in 2020 and 2021.

Chart 1: Summary of COVID-19 Stimulus Funding for Education

Summary of COVID-19 Stimulus Funding for EducationThese funds are divided across all of the states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. based on their respective Title I proportionate share (e.g., if a state receives 5% of Title I funding, it would receive 5% of the stimulus funding). You can see the state allocation table for the ARP ESSER Fund here.

Chart 2: Allocation of ARP ESSER Stimulus Funding

Allocation of ARP ESSER Stimulus Funding

Under the ARP, there are specific requirements for how funding must be used. At least 90% of a state’s ESSER allocations must be subgranted to Local Education Agencies (LEAs), based on those LEAs’ proportionate share of Title I. LEAs must reserve 20% of their funding to address learning loss resulting from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged student subgroups with evidence-based interventions. Children with disabilities are specifically identified as one of these subgroups that should receive interventions. In fact, students with special needs were disproportionately negatively impacted by the pandemic and the shift to virtual learning, making their academic and social-emotional recovery a top priority for LEAs.

In addition, State Education Agencies (SEAs) must set aside a percentage of their total ESSER allocation to address the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of students disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Here, too, students with disabilities are identified as a priority population.

Three separate reservations are required for each state’s ARP ESSER funding:

  • 5% reserved for evidence-based interventions that address learning loss.
  • 1% reserved for evidence-based comprehensive after school programs.
  • 1% reserved for evidence-based summer enrichment programs.

In our article “Evidence-Base for Interventions and Programs,” we’ll go into more detail about what “evidence-based” means in terms of interventions and programs.

To get full access to ESSER funds, SEAs first apply directly to the U.S. Department of Education, using an ARP ESSER Application Template. For LEAs to get funds, they must apply to the relevant SEA. You can find the contact information for each state’s SEA with the interactive map here: State Contacts and Information.

Chart 3: Important dates for ESSER Stimulus Funding

Important dates for ESSER Stimulus Funding

Two thirds of ESSER III awards were allocated to states on March 24, 2021. To receive the additional one-third of ESSER III funds, states had to submit an ESSER III State Plan. You can view the plan applications and plan approvals here.

To see how much of these funds are being spent, and on what, visit one of the following links:

IDEA Stimulus Funding for Special Education

Through the American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) received an additional $3 billion. These IDEA funds are of special importance to special education teachers because they are specifically meant to assist students with disabilities and their families.

Of the $3 billion in the ARP:

  • $2.58 billion is for IDEA Part B, State Grants.
  • $200 million is for IDEA Part B, Preschool Grants for Children 3-5.
  • $250 million is for IDEA Part C, Early Intervention Services for Infants and Toddlers.

IDEA funds flow through the normal IDEA formula. These funds were made available for obligation by SEAs and LEAs starting July 1, 2021 and ending September 30, 2023, and must be liquidated by January 28, 2024. Each state’s IDEA allocations are here: Estimated American Rescue Plan IDEA Supplemental Grant Allocations.

It’s important to note that the ARP IDEA stimulus funds are being made available in addition to regular, ongoing annual IDEA funding and don’t change the baseline of spending at the federal level. States cannot reduce their financial support for special education below the amount of support from the previous fiscal year. A similar rule applies to LEAs, but at a local level.

You can find more information about the IDEA funds in this fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Education and on the IDEA American Rescue Plan Funds page.


Sustaining your Special Education Funding

Keep in mind that although ESSER has a Maintenance of Effort requirement, the “supplement, not supplant” provision does not apply to stimulus money. This means that while the state must maintain a level of support for education, ESSER funds may take the place of state or local funds for allowable activities. You can also start paying for a program or intervention with stimulus dollars and then shift to a different funding source at a later time, which can assist with sustaining investments.

Moreover, federal funding for education is expected to be on the rise. For example, in FY22, the Biden Administration is proposing a nearly $3 billion increase for special education, bringing the regular appropriation for IDEA to over $17 billion per year.

Stimulus funding provides a huge opportunity to reassess and upgrade your special education programs. Doubling down on previous strategies may not be the best solution. Instead, look into budget reallocation; assess the programs you are already using; and think about replacing less effective, pre-pandemic tools or platforms with more effective, cutting-edge solutions. In the end, some of these innovations may pay for themselves.


The Bottom Line on Stimulus Funding for Special Education

Total federal stimulus funding will approximately result in a 30% average boost in funding per school district, amounting to $4,000 on average per student. Additionally, the laws incorporate strong maintenance of effort and maintenance of equity provisions to prevent reductions in state and local funding, especially in high-poverty schools and districts, which means the stimulus funding will be in addition to regular funding and therefore provide a big funding boost.

For in-depth information about these federal funding options, you can read more in our article “ESSER and IDEA Stimulus Funding for Special Education.” You can also watch our on-demand webinar, “How to Access Federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) Funds for Special Education” featuring various experts on special education, including Doug Mesecar, Former Ed Tech senior executive and U.S. Department of Education Deputy Chief of Staff.

In our article “Selecting a High-Performing Special Education Curriculum” we’ll explore a framework for assessing your needs and identifying the programs, tools, and methodologies that will yield the greatest benefits for your special needs students.

Julie Zuckerman

Julie Zuckerman

Julie Zuckerman has over two and a half decades of experience in executive marketing and product marketing roles at technology companies. Her debut novel, The Book of Jeremiah, was published in 2019.

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