Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Tips and Resources for Funding an SEL Program

When funding your SEL program, whether through government or private sources, remember that relationships, partnerships, and united fronts matter, and that vision and flexibility are critical.

May 19, 2016
Photo credit: ©Gable Denims/500px

Editor's note: This piece by Olga Acosta Price is adapted from Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice, now available from Guilford Press.

Although a growing body of evidence shows that social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential for student growth, finding ways to fund SEL programs can be challenging. For schools seeking funding options, identifying local, state, and federal sources can help ensure the long-term sustainability of SEL programs.

The Big Picture: What Impacts Sustainability?

To fund SEL programs, it is important to look to state and local communities for support. According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 90 percent of funding for K-12 education comes from nonfederal sources (Johnson, Zhou, & Nakamoto, 2011), most of which is supplied by state and local government. Once avenues for funding are identified, it is important to look at the language used to describe the program. Depending on whether a program is categorized as social skills training, positive youth development, bullying prevention, civic and character education, conflict resolution, or school climate initiatives will influence the funding options available.

Successfully implementing an SEL program also requires careful consideration of related costs. Staff time, the purchase of curricula, materials, and supplies, and consultant fees are typical, but often are not the only expenses (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). Coordinating SEL programs with learning standards, evidence-based programs, teacher professional development, and student assessment also adds additional costs which should be accounted for in helping the longevity of an SEL approach.

Local Support for SEL Programs and Practices

Local government funding for school programs can come from a variety of sources (such as general fund revenues, through an agency budget, or from dedicated revenues such as taxes). In particular, K-12 education relies heavily on local revenues, which on average contribute approximately 44 percent to the education budget (Johnson et al., 2011), with these dollars drawn mostly from local property taxes. While such funds may be available, it is also important that school boards, superintendents, and local policy makers are well informed about the value of SEL programs to allocate resources accordingly. Toward that end, cultivating relationships with SEL providers, child-serving agencies, educators, and advocates helps build awareness and support.

Here are three examples of how local funds were used to support SEL implementation:

  1. The Preventive Health and Health Services (PHHS) block grant (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013b) addresses public health needs through prevention and health promotion programs. Although typically used for chronic disease prevention, activities related to SEL have also received support from this source. For example, in 2009 the Health Department of Barron County, Wisconsin, partnered with local schools to implement substance abuse curricula with strong SEL components (CDC, n.d.).

  2. In Lyndhurst, Ohio, where over 85 percent of the school district budget depends on local tax dollars, voters passed an extension for a levy on residential properties that would generate about $4.5 million annually to support educational programming over the next three years (Support SEL Schools, n.d.). Energetic community-based advocacy promoting the benefits of SEL interventions led to the successful passage of the levy.

  3. The Boston Public Health Commission coordinated a two-year project with Boston public schools and Partners HealthCare, a nonprofit hospital system that invested $1 million to fund the collaborative project. The purpose of the project is to help students manage their emotions and cultivate healthy relationships. Together, these partners are implementing Open Circle, an evidence-based SEL program in 23 Boston public schools (Wellesley Centers for Women, 2012).

State Support for SEL Programs and Practices

The largest portion of funding for public elementary and secondary schools, approximately 47 percent, comes from state dollars (Johnson et al., 2011). Although there is variability across states, education funding is generated by a combination of income, corporate, and sales taxes plus other fees. In states that do not collect income taxes, there is often greater reliance on local revenues. Regardless of the revenue source, however, each state has its own formula for financing K-12 education, based largely on the priorities set by the state board of education. Board members are typically appointed by the governor and approved by the state legislature, although several states elect or have a combination of elected and appointed members (National Association of State Boards of Education, 2013). Identifying members of the board can help target advocacy efforts by influencing individuals with budgeting authority to support SEL programming.

The following examples help illustrate how state funds could be used for SEL implementation:

  • In 2004, California voters passed a proposition to charge a one percent income tax on high-income state residents to support the Mental Health Services Act (California Department of Mental Health, 2004). Roughly 20 percent of the funds supported prevention and early intervention activities, such as the Student Mental Health Initiative (California Department of Mental Health, 2007), which promoted mental health among students and trained educational staff on effective prevention and wellness activities.

  • Also in 2004, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) helped Illinois become the first state to pass comprehensive K-12 SEL standards (Dusenbury et al., 2015). The Illinois Children's Mental Health Partnership and Voices for Illinois Children, a statewide advocacy organization, secured a $3 million appropriation from the General Assembly to implement a number of school-based strategies, one third of which was used for teacher and staff training (Gordon, Ji, Mulhall, Shaw, & Weissberg, 2011).

  • The 2006 Children's Mental Health Act of New York State authorized the development of a statewide plan, The Children's Plan: Improving the Social and Emotional Well-Being of New York's Children and Their Families (New York State Office of Mental Health, 2008), which led to a number of state-supported strategies. For example, the Promise Zones for Urban Education initiative strengthened collaboration among local school districts and child-serving agencies (Council on Children and Families, 2010, p.3).

Federal Funding for SEL Programs and Practices

Over the past 50 years, the role of the federal government in K-12 public education has been to ensure equal educational access and to provide resources for those students who need additional supports. Through its Title I program, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 provides support to more than half of all public schools. For schools with more than 40 percent of their student population exceeding federal poverty levels, administrators have the option to use Title I dollars to implement programs that enhance performance of the entire school population (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).

Additionally, the Title II provision of ESEA supports activities related to teacher quality, teacher retention, and teacher preparation, and has typically been used for districtwide professional development activities. Districts that adopt strategies to improve school climate and strengthen social and emotional competencies through teaching strategies are particularly interested in Title II funding. For example, Austin (Texas) Independent School District leaders have begun implementing SEL programs across schools in their district and have used Title II dollars to fund this effort (Raven, 2013).

Finally, ESEA’s Title IV, Part A program, also known as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, supports programs to prevent violence in and around schools, prevent the use of drugs, and foster a safe learning environment that supports academic achievement.


Foundations have played an important role in developing innovative education and health initiatives. Whereas some foundations sustain established community cultural and charitable institutions, such as the local symphony or United Way, other foundations are organizing institutions dedicated to new purposes, such as Andrew Carnegie's libraries, the Gates Foundation's restructured high schools, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's school-based health centers. Foundation giving has been increasing steadily in the United States over the past several decades, reaching $46 billion in 2011 (Lawrence, 2012).

Guidelines and Recommendations

Relationships matter.

Not only what you know but also who you know makes a difference. Who are the power brokers and decision makers for eligible funding streams? Program planners and administrators must get to know these individuals and help make the connection between what is important to them and the known benefits of prevention programs.

Partnerships matter.

In light of national and state budget deficits, stand-alone programs, no matter how effective, are not likely to survive. Partnerships, especially with organizations that bring complementary expertise, remain critical for program sustainability. Programs also need to be meaningfully linked to broader social initiatives to maximize their staying power.

United fronts matter.

Groups of individuals that speak with one collective voice are difficult to ignore or silence and can therefore be quite influential. With policy moving to offer increased control for states and districts over spending, advocacy for desired prevention programs and comprehensive school reforms must be well coordinated, communicated, and executed.

Potential Problems and Pitfalls

Adopt a flexible frame, but have a frame.

To take advantage of current funding opportunities, programs may need to use a conceptual frame that is specific enough to mobilize supporters but broad enough to capture the trend of the moment. Describing how a universal prevention program can address a number of issues over time may allow programs to successfully ride numerous political waves. However, being too flexible may convey a lack of focus or authenticity.

More is not always better, and this goes for funding, too.

If a program is established within an institutional setting (i.e., a government agency or university), then it is more likely to have the necessary infrastructure to acquire and manage a diverse funding portfolio. On the other hand, nonprofit or community-based organizations usually have limited administrative resources and must therefore discern the best funding options to help advance their cause without sacrificing the resources needed to obtain the desired results.


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