A recent news article highlighted Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley’s “far-reaching plans for Louisiana students.”

He rightly identified the need for increased educational options and increased academic achievement in reading and math, particularly as students attending public schools continue to recover from pandemic learning loss, as his highest priorities.

Louisiana currently ranks 42nd overall in academic achievement, according to the Nation’s Report Card (2022 National Assessment of Education Progress). Despite notable progress in recent years, the state remains at the bottom nationally.

Louisiana’s National Education Rankings
4th grade: 42nd4th grade: 44th
8th grade: 39th8th grade: 45th

Only 33% of students reached the state’s proficiency target on last year’s LEAP tests. Click here to see the statewide and school system results.

At a meeting of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) last week, Superintendent Brumley noted that his agency, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), aims to increase its NAEP rankings to the 20s by 2028. His team has led several significant shifts to accelerate improvements in reading, including the creation of a universal literacy screener, an improved statewide reporting system, progress monitoring, family reporting, five different tutoring programs, and supports to school systems as they prepare to implement new laws requiring certain students to be retained in the third grade for not reading on grade level.

Similar efforts have begun in math, including the use of Zearn Math to achieve large gains in student achievement and helping math teachers use more effective strategies to accelerate student progress.

Recent national research has shown individual or small-group tutoring, called “high-dosage” tutoring, to be particularly effective. In this model, trained tutors work with students multiple times a week for several months.

Superintendent Brumley and others want to scale its use statewide.

However, local school systems have been slow to implement this strategy. According to the Department’s dashboard, which we accessed on February 12, 2024, only 3% of federal ESSER (pandemic relief and recovery) dollars received by Louisiana has been used on high-dosage tutoring, and much of this has been at the state level. The LDOE has provided 27,170 tutoring sessions to students across the state over the past few years through its Steve Carter Literacy Program, which has been funded using state set-aside dollars from this same pot of federal money.

Out of $3.87 billion in ESSER money awarded to Louisiana school systems, as of February 5, 2024 (the date of LDOE’s most recent ESSER dashboard update when we accessed the site on February 12, 2024), only $2.09 billion has been spent, leaving $1.78 billion remaining.

Eighteen school systems have spent less than half of these dollars (which are above and beyond their regular local, state/MFP, and federal funding):

These remaining funds have undoubtedly been obligated for a number of different uses. In fact, the largest categories of expenditures thus far have been for “Safe Return to School” (which includes property, salaries and stipends, transportation, benefits, supplies, professional services, technology, and health), and “Capital Expense.”

Those are necessary and ordinary expenses of operating a local public school system that state and local officials must address, but the whole point of this federal support was to help combat student learning loss. It’s hard to think of much that’s more important than teaching students how to catch up in reading and doing basic math.

According to officials at the LDOE, the funds must be spent by September 30, 2024, although school systems can continue drawing down reimbursements through January 2025. They expect to see the current balance come down substantially when it updates financial systems and the dashboard again in early March, possibly down to just over $1 billion, but that’s still a lot of money to spend over the next eight months. Whether we’ll see more dollars spent on high-dosage tutoring and other high-priority student-focused supports remains to be seen.

As the legislature considers requests for increased K-12 education funding for the upcoming 2024-2025 fiscal year and how to accelerate Louisiana students’ learning, it should begin with an expectation that local school systems focus every available dollar—particularly existing federal dollars—on helping students master these foundations of lifelong learning. Doing so will pay off big time for Louisiana’s kids and allow the state to prioritize taxpayer resources in a responsible manner.