Billions Are Left to Address the COVID Student Slump in Louisiana, But Some See ‘Unfunded Mandate’

Lawmakers consider allowing schools to use ‘high-dosage’ tutoring

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Billions of federal dollars are available to help Louisiana students make up ground lost in the classroom to the COVID-19 pandemic, but some educators say they don’t have the staff to put the plans in place and are concerned about what happens once the money runs out.

Louisiana schools have roughly $2.3 billion left to spend out of back-to-back allocations of federal pandemic stimulus dollars that totaled $4 billion. That teachers are already stretched thin — and new ones so increasingly hard to find — is at the heart of why so much of the remedial COVID money has not been spent.

The state Senate could consider a proposal this week that would allow schools to devote more time to what’s being called accelerated instruction. Senate Bill 177, from Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, updates a law he authored last year that targeted fourth- through eighth-graders who failed to achieve mastery level in math and reading on state assessment tests. Mastery signifies that the student met expectations for their grade level.

This year’s version adds third-graders and eliminates an accelerated learning committee for each student that includes their parent or guardian and their teacher. Instead, parents will be provided a plan that details their child’s accelerated instruction.

McMath also wants to change the instruction time specified in last year’s legislation. Instead of meeting once-weekly for a total of 30 hours over the ensuing summer and school year, the tutoring sessions would have to last at least 30 minutes and be held no fewer than three times a week. Sessions could take place during or after school and over the summer.

Tutoring groups are allowed but no larger than five students, down from a dozen in existing law, unless parents are OK with more participants.

Shenoa Warren, East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools chief of literacy, called McMath’s bill “an unfunded mandate” when it was advanced Thursday by the Senate Education Committee.

“We would hope the state could help us build capacity to have staff provide the extra support,” Warren said.

A staff supplement option for schools is included in this year’s bill. It requires the Louisiana Department of Education to publish a list of “approved high-quality tutoring providers” by no later than October that schools can hire to bolster in-house faculty efforts. The providers’ tutors have to pass the same background checks as school employees, and they must provide live instruction that can be offered in person, online or both.

Michael Lombardo with BookNook, a company that provides what he referred to as “high-dosage tutoring,” appeared before the Senate committee and shared facts on its experience in Texas, where lawmakers approved policy similar to McMath’s. BookNook has worked with approximately 300,000 students and 2,500 tutors in Texas, according to Lombardo.

Opponents of McMath’s bills include the state organizations representing school boards and system superintendents as well as the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

Janet Pope, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, questioned why the proposal calls for the state to provide a list of approved vendors when school districts can already hire them on their own. Senate Bill 177 preserves that option, but schools must apply for a waiver from the state education department if they want to hire a vendor that’s not on the list, which Pope said removes autonomy from local school boards.

Michael Faulk, executive director for the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said McMath’s bill would force schools to scrap plans already submitted to address COVID-related student deficiencies — a scenario that risks running past state planning deadlines.

Ethan Melancon with the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education said there are members who support McMath’s proposal, but they also have concerns about additional bureaucracy, redundancy with existing remediation efforts and what happens when the COVID money runs out.

Brigette Neiland with Stand for Children shared her support for the bill with the Senate committee. She rejected arguments that schools should not embrace accelerated learning just because the COVID stimulus will eventually run out.

“It’s not as if helping students for years before then is a waste of time or money,” Neiland said.

McMath said this year’s bill “adds teeth” to his measure approved last year, although it so far doesn’t contain any punishment for schools that don’t spend the federal money. It requires  every local school board to file reports annually with the state by June 1 that spells out what high-quality tutoring providers it hired, how many students needed the extra support, how much it spent on academic remediation and the source of the money, and how it adjusted the school-day schedule to accommodate the additional instruction.

The state education department, in turn, will summarize the information from each school board and post it on its website by July 1.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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