Connecticut Uses ESSER Funding to Evaluate Long-Term Investments


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This is the first of two posts that highlight how state leaders in Connecticut are leveraging ESSER funding to support schools long term. The author would like to extend a special thanks to Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer at the Connecticut State Department of Education for his insights and contributions to this post.

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding has provided a historic investment in public education. States have leveraged ESSER funding to support a number of innovative initiatives, including extended learning opportunities, tutoring services and student health supports in addition to staffing needs and other pressing issues. As the deadline to commit funds approaches, along with predictions of steep funding declines, states face particular pressure to determine which ESSER investments are worth supporting with ongoing, sustainable funding into the future. 

To better understand the impact of programs funded through this historic investment in education, Connecticut prioritized high-quality program evaluations in their state ESSER spending plan through the creation of the Center for Connecticut Education Research Collaboration (CCERC). The collaborative is a partnership between the state education agency and higher education institutions throughout the state.  

The University of Connecticut serves as the coordinating entity and a steering committee of researchers from public and private institutions guides the work of CCERC. The state education agency sets the research agenda for the collaborative, which was originally tasked with both evaluating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state programs designed to mitigate that impact. We recently sat down with Ajit Gopalakrishnan, Connecticut State Department of Education’s chief performance officer, to learn more.  

“With $1.7 billion in federal funding through ESSER, we needed to understand what was working and how our programs could be improved,” Gopalakrishnan explained when asked about the origins of CCERC. The collaborative has engaged over 40 educational researchers on various projects. These projects include an evaluation of remote learning in the state, the summer enrichment program, the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program (LEAP), and a study on teacher and leader perceptions. Gopalakrishnan shared that the collaborative has been a mutually beneficial undertaking. He said, “Our higher education faculty have a desire to support K-12 education and CCERC gives them the opportunity to provide that support, while also pursuing their own research interests.” 

It is no secret that academic research and program evaluation can take a significant amount of time and resources, but CCERC has prioritized a rapid response approach that ensures education stakeholders have the data they need to make informed decisions. Since the state education agency sets the research agenda and the steering committee approves proposals from faculty, the collaborative can ensure that researchers provide reliable and actionable information for state and local education agencies to use.  

For example, researchers conducted an evaluation of the state’s summer enrichment program and found a positive impact on student engagement and offered recommendations for program improvement. This report provided the justification for continued investment in the program in 2023 and 2024. Similarly, the Learning Engagement and Attendance Program has received considerable praise and additional funding to expand the program to other districts as a product of CCERC’s evaluation.   

Along those lines, Gopalakrishnan praised CCERC as a valuable policymaking tool. He said, “we know what’s working and can make the case for continued investment in successful programs.” The scope of the research conducted by the collaborative is expanding to other pressing topics, such as behavioral health, advanced course participation and school facilities. As the scope expands, Connecticut is partnering with its higher education institutions to ensure policymakers have the information they need to make data-driven investments and policy changes at the state and local level.  

Stay tuned for an upcoming post that details Connecticut’s Learning Engagement and Attendance Program and explores considerations for addressing growing concerns over chronic absenteeism.  

Author profile
Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

As a policy analyst, Ben works on tracking legislation, answering information requests and contributing to other Policy Team projects. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, he taught high school social studies in Kentucky and worked in education policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. He earned a master's degree in education policy from the University of Colorado Boulder and a bachelor's degree in history and education from Transylvania University.

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