Victoria has experience working on a variety of issues in education policy. She’s worked on K-12 issues at ETS, as well as higher education research at The Urban Institute. Prior to joining SIIA’s policy team, she focused on Title IV-A appropriations at the federal level with the Bernstein Strategy Group. As SIIA’s Education Technology Policy Manager she handles issues that include privacy, accessibility, and equity in ed tech.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is a hot topic. ESSA is intended to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education that prepares them for long-term success, and includes a repeal of the Adequate Yearly Progress report in favor of state accountability. With every state having their own plan for ESSA, it is hard to know how to get started. We’re here to help! In this podcast, you will learn how to find out the accountability requirements of your state, how to obtain funding for your school or district, and much more.
Additional topics include:
How ESSER funding relates to COVID-Relief bills (CARES ACT, CARES Supplemental ACT, and the American Rescue Plan)
The part Title 1 plays in ESSA
Ways schools can use funds to address issues brought on by the pandemic
Victoria Akosile: Schools really do have a lot of flexibility and discretion to use the funds to meet their particular needs, and I think that's one of the great things that they can really adapt at based on what they see they need the most.
Speaker 1: You just heard Victoria Akosile of SIIA. Ms. Akosile is our guest today on EDVIEW360.
Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 Podcast series. We are so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning in Dallas, Texas. Today, we're excited to welcome Victoria Akosile, education technology policy manager [at] SIIA. Ms. Akosile is our guest for the second education funding series we are hosting. Welcome, Ms. Akosile.
Victoria Akosile: Thank you, Pam. So happy to be here with you all.
Pam Austin: We're happy to have you. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in education?
Victoria Akosile: Sure. So, I feel for me it probably goes back to high school. I interned at DCPS, which is the District of Columbia Public Schools system, and it was very interesting to be on the back end and seeing how decisions were made across a variety of different factors that influenced what happened in schools all across the district. So, I think that internship was probably my first introduction into education. And then throughout college, I also worked in a lot of education-based organizations at ETS, which is Education Testing Services. I did some research at The Urban Institute, and I also worked with Bernstein Strategy Group, and I've also been on the teaching side of things—I've taught English in both China and Spain. So, education is something that's just been a common thread in everything I've done.
Pam Austin: It looks like you dove into education inside and outside. You must have such an eclectic experience here.
Victoria Akosile: I think being in front of the classroom as well as being behind the scenes, you just have an appreciation knowing that people are working on both sides to try and get things done even if you can't see it. So, it's definitely a perspective-builder for sure.
Pam Austin: Definitely. Absolutely love it. Tell me, what does SIIA stand for and what does it do?
Victoria Akosile: Sure. So, we are the Software and Information Industry Association. So, in general, we have about 700 different member companies across a variety of industry sectors. But, specifically to education, we focus on edtech, and we are currently the only edtech trade association. And what that means is that we represent the interests of edtech companies, especially when rules and laws and policies are being made that combine the intersection of the two. So, you have education that's its own silo and you have technology, which is again its own silo—but more and more, the two are starting to converge, and especially over the past year, it's definitely been brought to the forefront. So, we make sure [edtech companies’] perspective is included in decisions that would affect them.
Pam Austin: On the website it says, “The voice for the specialized information industry and associations.” What does that mean and how is it connected to education? You gave us a little bit of information. Can you dive more deeply into that?
Victoria Akosile: For sure. Like I said, we are the only edtech trade association. So, we are the voice, the loudest voice, the only voice making sure that edtech companies are considered when different rules and policies and just things in general come up. So, what we do is that we definitely serve as a bridge between those making the decisions and making sure that the edtech perspective is considered, because it's something that is fairly new for most people and it's been accelerated over the past year. So, making sure things that may not have been considered… we're making [sure] certain rules and regulations are considered from the edtech perspective. We are the only voice for them, so making sure that our voice is heard, and their needs are met.
Pam Austin: I like the idea, the analogy you use of a bridge. Quite often, we need a bridge to make those connections. Thank you so much for sharing your background and information about SIIA. Now, let's move on to today's topic. Can you tell us a little bit about what ESSER funds are, and how and why they were created?
Victoria Akosile: So, ESSER stands for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and it was first created in the CARES Act, which was the first COVID relief bill passed in March of last year. It was created under the Education Stabilization Fund. And what it is, it's money for schools to address issues that came about when the pandemic hit. When the pandemic first started, everyone was in this limbo and navigating uncharted waters—especially schools, teachers, parents, administrators—and there was a lot of things to move into motion immediately. Schools, teachers, students were at home, and there needed to be a way to reach them. So, ESSER was created to give more funds to schools to be able to address the impact of the pandemic and prepare for it in the future.
Pam Austin: Thank you. That's good to know. Last month, we had a podcast with Jon Hummel regarding the CARES Act. How does ESSER relate to the CARES Act? You gave us some information. Can you expound on that as well?
Victoria Akosile: ESSER is money created in all the COVID relief bills for education. There've been three so far, and CARES was the first one. The ESSER funds under the CARES Act, that was around $13.2 billion for K–12 schools, and there were very broad guidelines for schools on how to use [the funds], because this was something very new for everyone. So, what the CARES Act did was that it provided funds for schools to do things like sanitize their schools or upgrade their ventilation systems, as well as get things like education technology hardware and software for students as they made that transition. So, ESSER and the CARES Act, that was the first introduction that we had to ESSER funds, and it really was made with the idea of helping schools navigate the switch to remote learning during the pandemic.
Pam Austin: Well, when I think of Title I, how does that relate to ESSER?
Victoria Akosile: Just a bit of background: Title I is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And what it is, it's a formula that provides money to local school districts who have a high percentage of children from low-income households. What these funds do, they’re meant to help support [these children] academically to make sure that they are still getting the resources that they need. And how that relates to ESSER is that the federal government, they give the money to a state education agency, so the money goes from the government to the state. And then from the state level, it is then given out to local education agencies—or, you can call them districts, it’s given out to the districts—and the money that is given to the districts is dependent on how much money they normally receive under Title I. So, again, Title I is based on the number of students in the district who come from low-income households. So, with that percentage in mind, the more Title I students that you have, the higher the amount of ESSER funds that you receive.
Pam Austin: That makes sense. From the federal to the state to local districts, and districts will distribute to those schools based on need.
Victoria Akosile: Yes. It's all a flow chart from top to bottom.
Pam Austin: Well, tell me, what challenges do you think schools might face when they return to the classroom this school year? Just this morning, I saw many school buses on the road, kids are on their way back to classes. What are some of those challenges you'd like to share, like to address?
Victoria Akosile: To be quite honest, I think what challenges won't so many schools face when they go back? Because this past year has been really challenging for students, teachers, and parents, and everyone involved. But, one of the things that I think will be particularly challenging this year is making sure that school lesson plans are adopted for in-person and online learning, and that they are engaging, so that if something were to happen—if the school year is disrupted, or online learning needs to exist, or a student can't come to the school for some reason, they have the opportunity to still engage in a lesson plan and still feel like the lesson plan was designed with them in mind. They're engaged and they like the lesson plan and that they're learning from it. And that teachers also have the technology to be able to do that. So, I think just making sure that there's that adaptability component for in-person and online learning. I think that will be something that schools will definitely have to think about this year.
Pam Austin: So, a flexible curriculum with a flexible format for face-to-face or maybe virtual instruction, that's what you say would be most beneficial for teachers?
Victoria Akosile: I think that might be a challenge and that would be beneficial for them to make sure that's in place for them.
Pam Austin: Thinking about the ESSER funds, can they be used to address those challenges? Let's say there's a curriculum out there that would benefit that have these features. Could the funding be used to purchase the materials as well as what teachers would need to make sure that they're able to shift from, let's say, a face-to-face environment to a virtual environment?
Victoria Akosile: I think one of the great things about ESSER is that there's a lot of flexibility in how the funds can be used. So, there are overall guidelines in what they have to be used for, but the specifics are completely up to the districts to decide how they want to implement that. So, if it's a situation where students need laptops or they need a particular edtech tool or resource, schools can use the money from ESSER to purchase those different materials to make sure that students have what they need to be able to continue the school year, even if it's in-person or remote. So again, schools really do have a lot of flexibility and discretion to use the funds to meet their particular needs, and I think that's one of the great things that they can really adapt at based on what they see they need the most.
Pam Austin: That's great. That word “flexibility,” it makes just so much sense, because when you think about the entire country and the needs across the country, needs will vary, right? So, solutions will vary and just developing those solutions and having those resources, those resources will vary as well. This really leads me to one of our interventions, because as soon as you talked about flexibility and curriculum shifting from one to another, our Passport K–5 [NH1] intervention solution is ESSA Strong. How important is a strong literacy solution to addressing challenges due to a pandemic and returning to the classroom? And I do have to add, it can shift from being a face-to-face to virtual intervention there. That little tidbit, I think, needs to be known. But, when I think about a curriculum being ESSA Strong, how important is that?
Victoria Akosile: So, “ESSER Strong” is great because it uses the same definition as “ESSA Strong” as well, if there are different tiers under what “evidence-based” means and what that looks like. So, something that is Strong evidence, that means there is at least one well-designed and implemented study. So, it's considered something that's known as Tier 1 evidence. And a lot of the ESSER funds, if a school wants to purchase a new software, a new program, or implement something new, it does need to be evidence-based. So, the higher the rating—or the higher the evidence based on the department standards—the better it is for students, because there's more evidence that it works and there would be no issue in wondering if it's something that ESSER funds could be used to purchase.
Pam Austin: Perfect. Thank you for that answer, Victoria. As an FYI, I want to let everyone know that Passport supports both face-to-face and is a remote-ready curriculum. It's an intervention for our K–5 students.
Victoria Akosile: That's great to hear.
Pam Austin: With that in mind, I do have another question to ask you, really focusing on the ESSER funding still. How will the school or district get started requesting funding for ESSER? We talked about the flow chart, federal to state to local. How do the local districts even know what they may be receiving? Where would they go? What would their first steps be?
Victoria Akosile: So, for any school district or local education agency, the first place to start would be their state education agency. So, going back to that flow chart, but in the reverse way: School districts, they need to apply for the funds from the state, and particularly for ESSER funds, they are able to apply for the funds based on going back to that Title I formula. So, the ESSER funds would be distributed based on the Title I funding that a district received in 2019. So, based on that, school districts would apply from the state, and the state applies to the government on behalf of the state. So, any school district looking to figure out where to get their ESSER funds from should definitely start with their state education agency.
Pam Austin: All right. So the reverse flow chart, just let me state it again. So, the schools would contact the local district, who will contact the state, and the state will contact the federal on behalf of them.
Victoria Akosile: Everyone applies, so local applies from the state and the state applies from the federal.
Pam Austin: All right. Very good. Thank you for clarifying that for us. Just thinking, what are some other funding options and how can schools or districts access that information?
Victoria Akosile: So, in the first two COVID relief bills—so, the CARES Act and what’s called the CARES Supplemental Act—there was a pot of money allotted to governors known as GEER funding. And what GEER funding was, it was a discretionary amount of money that governors were able to dole out to the K–12 schools or higher ed schools. Schools could apply, and the governor would assess and decide to give them some money at their discretion to provide emergency support grants. So, that is definitely one avenue that schools could look to. I will just note that the governors had to award the funds within a year of receiving them; the CARES Act was passed in March of last year, so the time period for that has elapsed, but the CARES Supplemental was passed in December, which also included GEER funds, so there's still time for any state looking to supplement what they receive to apply for those as well.
Pam Austin: Victoria, thank you for sharing that information. I look at the word “GEER,” and our government is fond of acronyms. Is that an acronym for something? And specifically when I think of GEER, what is it that I'm able to purchase? What is this funding directed toward?
Victoria Akosile: So, GEER is the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund. So, the same way we have the one for... almost like ESSER, we just have it at the state level. So, again, it's a discretionary fund for governors to use for education across the state. So, ESSER funds, they're specifically for K–12 schools; the GEER funds are used at the K–12 or the higher ed level. So, in total, again, governors are given a certain amount to use at their discretion. Everyone in the education spaces [is] eligible for those funds. So, they apply, and at the governor's discretion, [the governor] can choose to award grants to the state, either in the full amount or a partial amount—or, again, however they see fit, because it really is at their discretion.
Pam Austin: Victoria, you have so much good information here. You're a wonderful resource. Where should districts go if they need help or have questions related to funding?
Victoria Akosile: So, one of the great places to start at the district level is start with your state education agency. They can definitely provide some great resources if you have questions about funding or how much funding you received. So, that's definitely one place to go. And another place to go, I would say, is the Department of Ed. They are in charge of education across the country, so they do have a lot of resources and fact sheets that summarize—and they have flow charts, they break things down as well. So, you can definitely start with the Department of Ed's website, and any resources that are linked there would definitely be a great starting point for anyone looking for more information.
Pam Austin: All right. Victoria, you're just a fount of knowledge here. You have mentioned more than once your state education department and also the federal Department of Ed as wonderful resources. Do you have any other helpful websites or resources that you would recommend?
Victoria Akosile: I would definitely recommend those two as the starter because you will definitely be getting the information from the source. From the department's website and from your state's website, if there are any other resources linked there, I would definitely use those because those are trusted sources that you can rely on and cut through the noise and get straight to the facts that you need.
Pam Austin: All right. Trusted sources, great idea there. We're nearing the end of our podcast. Is there anything else that schools and districts should know about securing funds from ESSER or other funding options? Any special tips or suggestions you might have?
Victoria Akosile: One thing that I would say that schools and states should keep in mind are deadlines associated with the funding. So, there's what's known as obligation deadlines for all the funding in the three different COVID relief bills. And what that means is that by that certain date—so, for ESSER I or the CARES Act, the obligation deadline is September 30th, 2022. For the CARES Supplemental, the obligation deadline is September 30th, 2023, and for the American Rescue Plan ESSER funds, that is the following year, so, September 30th, 2024. And what that means is that the money needs to be assigned to go somewhere. So, it doesn't necessarily have to be spent, but it does need to be obligated to a particular… either program, or if it's an after-school activity or some… it needs to be obligated to somewhere. So, that is something that states and school districts need to keep in mind, those deadlines. So, basically, September 30th for the next three years, just make sure that you've obligated all the funds that you've been given under ESSER. That's something to keep in mind.
Pam Austin: All right. Thank you, Victoria. There's still some time, then—I heard the dates of 2022, 2023, and 2024—but having a plan, a goal so that you can obligate that money for spending in a particular way. All right, don't forget. Finally, if you could wave a magic wand and change anything in the world of education, what would you change and why?
Victoria Akosile: A magic wand to change anything? I think for me, one thing that we've seen that we've needed over the past year is a seamless integration of edtech into our schools. So, making sure that students have the right hardware—that means laptops and things like that. Or just that they have the proper Wi-Fi and broadband to be able to use that from home, that there’s the right resources at home—so, that means literacy tools that you mentioned, like Passport, or math tools. If I had my magic wand and I could wave it, I would speed up the rate at which we integrate edtech into our schools seamlessly, so we can skip the part where we're figuring things out and just fast-forward to the part where everything works. That's what I'd use my magic wand to fix.
Pam Austin: Excellent. I love that idea. Seamlessly done. Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Akosile. It's been a pleasure visiting with you. Tell us how we can learn more about you and follow you on social media. And how can we learn more about SIIA?
Victoria Akosile: For sure. So, a great place to start would be our website, siia.net. Click on the Education tab and just explore what we have there. We do have a lot of resources about education and edtech and some of the great success stories of edtech. We just recently launched our Edtech Success Stories series this summer, so I encourage everyone to check us out at siia.net and @SIIA on all social media—including Twitter and LinkedIn—and follow us there.
Pam Austin: All right. Thank you. This is Pam Austin bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.
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