Louisiana to pay for tutoring, but only for some students | Education | nola.com

There’s good news for struggling students in Louisiana — but it comes with a catch.

The good news: The Legislature has signaled that it will pick up the tab for intensive tutoring after federal COVID money expires later this year. Many schools have relied on the aid to pay for intensive tutoring, which is expensive but also one of the most effective ways to catch up students who fall behind — as many did during the pandemic.

Committing the money would put Louisiana in the vanguard, with many states only providing one-time tutoring funds or still debating how to maintain tutoring after the federal aid ends.

But here’s the catch: The $30 million that Louisiana is poised to spend annually on tutoring will only support a fraction of students who are behind in school. The limited funding led lawmakers to scale back a bill that would have required schools to offer tutoring, which advanced out of the Senate Finance Committee Thursday.

Still, $30 million per year is a critical first step, said state Sen. Patrick McMath, R- Covington, the bill’s author.

“Is it going to get us all the way there? No,” he said in a recent interview. But the academic support will change the trajectory of students who receive it, McMath added, citing Louisiana students’ impressive recovery from pandemic learning loss as evidence of tutoring’s power.

“This is not a gamble,” he said. “Kids are catching up and test scores are increasing.”

During the pandemic, schools across the country launched tutoring programs bankrolled by Congress’ massive COVID stimulus package.

Louisiana spent more than $115 million of its federal aid on the service since 2021, which amounts to a little over $38 million per year, state officials said. However, the COVID money has an expiration date: September 2024.

So, at the urging of Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, the state board of education made a bold move: It added $30 million for tutoring to the state’s school-funding formula. The money would fund services for struggling students in grades K-5 indefinitely.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he wants Louisiana to be the first state to “fully scale” tutoring.

Before voting on the formula last month, some lawmakers raised concerns about adopting a new recurring expense when the state could face a budget shortfall next year. But Brumley, who has said he wants Louisiana to be the first state to “fully scale” tutoring, argued that dedicated funds would allow schools to preserve and even expand tutoring.

“We would be able to have consistency and build out that infrastructure to do this work year over year,” he said.

The gamble paid off: The Louisiana House voted 69-33 last week to approve the formula, which now heads to the Senate for a vote.

The amount earmarked for tutoring is less than what some states have allocated. But with the Legislature slashing spending on teacher pay and childcare in anticipation of a shortfall, $30 million is still a notable investment.

Kevin Berken, a member of the state board of education, said the funding signals Louisiana’s long-term commitment to tutoring even without federal aid.

“We saw that it worked,” he said, “so we’re trying to invest in this program from within.”

If the Senate passes the funding formula, tutoring will continue — but it will reach fewer students than some had hoped.

McMath, who authored tutoring bills that became law in 2021 and 2023, introduced a measure this year to greatly expand the service. Current law requires schools to offer intensive tutoring to students in grades 3-8 who score below state benchmarks on reading and math tests. In lieu of tutoring, schools can place the students in classrooms led by high-rated teachers.

McMath wanted to expand the support to struggling students in grades K-12. However, a legislative analysis pegged the cost at $60 million next school year. So McMath introduced a revised bill, which the finance committee approved Thursday, that limits eligibility to students in grades K-5. That change cut the cost in half — but it also shrank by half the number of students who would have been served.

Still, prioritizing younger students has its advantages, said Jenna Chiasson, who oversees teaching and learning at the state education department.

“Research tells us that if we catch them up then,” she said during Thursday’s hearing, “then they end up much more successful in middle school and high school.”

Schools can redeploy existing staff or use A.I.-powered computer programs to cut down on tutoring costs.

McMath’s Senate Bill 288 specifically requires “high-dosage” tutoring, a research-backed approach that entails at least three sessions per week, during the school day, with no more than four students per tutor. Such tutoring can give students a powerful learning boost, but it’s pricey — typically at least $1,200 annually per student.

According to the state education department, more than 250,000 students in grades K-5 would qualify for tutoring in math, reading, or both subjects through McMath’s bill. If each of those students received high-dosage tutoring, the cost could exceed $300 million – 10 times what the state has set aside.

However, department officials said some eligible students will not receive tutoring because they are assigned to highly rated teachers. Schools can also redeploy existing support staff rather than hiring tutors, or opt for A.I.-powered computer programs that cost as little as $17 per student, officials said.

The state’s plan to give schools a menu of options means only a limited number of students would receive the most intensive — and effective — type of tutoring. But such an approach is likely to be more sustainable in the long run, said Kevin Huffman, CEO of Accelerate, a nonprofit working to expand effective tutoring.

“It may be that the ideal tutoring structure involves different kids receiving different kinds of tutoring,” he said in an interview earlier this year, “and when you roll up all the costs, it’s much more manageable.”

After their COVID dollars dry up, school districts also can find creative ways to supplement the state tutoring money. They might tap into federal grants for low-income students, use college work-study programs to recruit tutors or seek donations.

East Baton Rouge Parish plans to do all of the above, said Joy Abernathy-Dyer, the district’s literacy director. Schools are determined to protect tutoring because they’ve seen what it can do, she said.

“It’s helped those students to become more confident,” she said. “And the more accomplished they feel, the more they want to continue on that trajectory.”

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