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Free Money for School Theatre Programs

By James Palmarini posted 05-26-2021 16:28



Free money for theatre education (almost)

Now that I have your attention, here’s what I want to talk about: federal funding for theatre education programs. That’s right—money from Washington that can actually come directly to your program. This is not a fantasy. It’s real and it’s now. I’m talking about the American Rescue Relief Plan (ARP) that was signed into law in March. Embedded in the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package is the Elementary and Secondary Education Relief fund (ESSER) that represents an unprecedented level of financial support for public education. ESSER III, called that as it is the third round of federal funding intended to help school districts throughout the country stabilize their budgets after deep cuts prompted by the pandemic, includes a whopping $122 billion for K-12 education. If you teach in a school or district that receives Title I funds, this money represents a once-in-lifetime opportunity to redefine your theatre program with new resources, infrastructure, and perhaps staff support.


I know that sounds like hyperbole but consider this: each school district that receives Title I-A funding will receive around 8 times their annual allocation in ESSER III funds. This is in addition to the funds from ESSER I ($13.2 billion) and ESSER II ($54.3 billion) which have already been issued to states and school districts for distribution (and in some cases, still being allocated for expenditures).


The law identifies 15 types of spending as allowable uses of ESSER III funds. You can find the complete list in the EdTA Guide to ESSER Funding. You can also find out how much your state has received in all three relief funds on the National Conference of State Legislator’s page. At this writing, some states have already listed district allocations; others are still pending. Go to your state’s department of education homepage to get the most up-to-date information regarding ESSER funding.


The great thing about this funding stream is its flexibility in terms of what it will pay for. The first “allowable” states, “any activity authorized by the ESEA of 1965” and other federal education laws. This means that if funding an activity is authorized under any well-rounded education program (which includes the arts), such as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant authorized under Title IV-A of ESSA, then that purchase would be allowable with ESSER funds as well.  


Some allowable ESSER funding examples for theatre programs

Here are potential purchases or payments these funds may support, identified with the relevant use number from the statute list of 15 types of eligible funding.

  • Masks; bell covers for musical brass instruments; plexiglass dividers; or other protective equipment for use onstage or in the theatre classroom.

Allowable under #3, #5

  • Training for theatre educators on strategies to conduct in-person theatre instruction

Safely. (see the EdTA document, Recommendations for Reopening School Theatre Programs)

Allowable under #6

  • Sanitation supplies for all technical hardware--microphones/headsets, sound and light boards, lights, rigging—costuming, props, shop tools, and all surfaces in the control booth and auditorium.

Allowable under #7

  • Purchasing devices for internet connectivity, laptops, and/or supplemental software that would allow for instruction and assessment virtually.

 Allowable under #9

  • Paying for additional instruction, such as through an adjunct teacher, private lessons instructor, or full-time teacher, to provide remediation in theatre.

Allowable under #11

  • Afterschool and summer learning programs to accelerate theatre learning and support social and emotional learning.

 Allowable under #11, #12

  • HEPA filters for the theatre classroom and rehearsal spaces to increase the amount of clean air and the number of air changes per hour (ACH)

Allowable under #13 and #14

  • Paying for theatre educators where enrollment numbers have dropped due to COVID-19.

Allowable under #15

  • Purchasing materials to set up theatre classrooms with physical distance between students such as masking tape or outdoor tents and/or purchasing equipment, such as a media cart, to make the theatre classroom mobile.

Allowable under #15

The U.S. Department of Education also explicitly says that ESSER funds can also be used for “other activities that are necessary to maintain operation of and continuity of and services, including continuing to employ existing or hiring new LEA and school staff.” This includes theatre and other arts educators. For secondary schools, where staffing is dependent on enrollment numbers in specific courses, ESSER funding may allow arts educators to remain employed using the federal funds while the programs are rebuilt post-pandemic. There is a catch here worth bearing mind: ESSER III funds must be allocated and spent by September 30, 2024. If money is used to support staff, there is no guarantee that the school will continue to fund those positions. But it is called a “rescue plan” for a reason. A well-managed district will have made contingency plans and allocated other funding from the state, so all educators and their programs are maintained once ESSER funds are exhausted.


Also important to know: Local education agencies must use at least 20% of ESSER III funds to address learning loss that addresses students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. Theatre education’s inherent support of students’ social and emotional well-being of students—whether through distance learning or in person—can help make a strong case for funding theatre-related activities under this set aside.


How do you apply for the funding?

  1. Find out who is responsible for managing your district’s ESSER funds.

While you, as an individual educator, are not eligible to directly apply for ESSER funds, your school can through the district office. The first thing you need to do as an advocate for your program is to find out who is the federal programs administrator or Title I Director responsible for managing the funds in your district. That individual will likely be the point person for ESSER funds as well. It could be a school or district curriculum coordinator but if you are in small or rural district that might be the school principal or even a department head.

  1. Do a needs assessment of your theatre program.

Before you reach out to ask how your theatre program might receive ESSER money, do a needs assessment of your program. That way, you can present a clear and specific ask for funding that will ensure that your theatre students will have the best opportunity to grow their knowledge and skills in the art we all love.  A good resource to help in your program evaluation is the 2016 EdTA Opportunity-to-Learn Standards for Theatre Education, which addresses the necessary resources and equipment, staffing, curriculum, facilities, and safety needed to deliver a quality theatre education experience to all students.  It will also help for you to reflect on student needs in the context of the pandemic. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Do you have a need for additional personal protective equipment to help students return to theatre classes and performance in person?
  • Do you have need for such things as additional scripts, textbooks, or shop tools, so students do not have to share them, to create a safer learning environment?
    • Do you have needs for ways to reach and engage students who have not been successful in virtual or hybrid learning situations, such as instruction by a supplemental theatre educator or teaching artist?
  • Do you have ideas on summer learning opportunities that can include theatre – both for students already engaged in your programs and for those who haven’t been participating?
  1. Ask for a meeting with your district’s federal programs manager Whoever is responsible for building your school district’s ESSER funding request should be able (and willing) to discuss the needs of your theatre education program for the fall and your ideas for summer learning. You may also want to invite your principal or other administrators engaged in your theatre program to this meeting. Be prepared to provide the evidence of your needs that you have assembled in your program review, including research to back up any pandemic mitigation and learning loss strategies and associated costs of what you are suggesting. A good resource regarding mitigation is the International Performing Arts Coalition Aerosol Research Study.
  2. Try again if your request is denied.

As you work with your federal programs’ person or staff in your district, remember that they are working to balance needs in all subject areas and across all the district’s schools.  Given the widespread focus on learning loss and remedial education, theatre and other arts education may not be an immediate district priority. So, if you are told no, ask if it’s possible that the needs that you have listed for your program might available later. 


Three important other facts to know about ESSER funds

  1. ESSER funds are allocated to school districts using the Title I funding formula applied in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The funds, however, are NOT considered Title I funds, and do not have to follow Title I

funding restrictions. There are no programmatic Title I or other restrictions to these funds, so long as

they are used for one of the 15 allowable activities listed in the statute.

  1. To apply for ESSER funds you must be a Title I school or be in district that has at least one Title I school.

ESSER funding is not tied to one Title I school, so it can be used for programs at all schools within the district. If your school is not Title I, you will need to make the case for the funds (see below) and understand that there will be other requests that may be prioritized above yours. If you are not in a district eligible for Title I funds, your best pathway for federal funding support may be through Title IV A. See the EdTA Guide to Title IV A Funding to learn how you might access those dollars through your district.

  1. ESSER III provides separate funding for non-public schools that enroll a significant percentage of children from low-income families and are most impacted by the pandemic.

All three rounds of ESSER funding provide a form of equitable services that allow for non-profit private schools to obtain ESSER funds. Under ESSER I, a school district that receives funds had to provide equitable services to students and teachers in non-public schools. ESSER II created a separate program of Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools under which non-profit private schools may apply to the state department of education to receive services or assistance.


A final thought about federal funding for arts education: I have spent years advocating on behalf of theatre education—for schools, for students, for teachers and it has always been challenging to communicate how federal dollars—and state money as well—can directly impact what happens on the stages and in the classrooms of the average under-funded, under-staffed and under-appreciated school theatre program. You are welcome to regard this blog as just one more pitch that will not make a difference to you and your students. Please, please reconsider. The Elementary and Secondary Education Relief fund is something different. That it took a devastating pandemic to prompt such historic attention to public education is a discussion for another day. For now, as an exercise, imagine that you had all the money you need for your program to become what you always wanted it to be. Then go after it. You, your school, and your students deserve it.