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Top Arizona school official sets $40M in federal COVID funds for tutoring

Posted 9/5/23

PHOENIX — The state’s top school official is setting aside $40 million of federal COVID relief dollars to provide personal tutoring for students who are not meeting proficiency standards for reading or math.

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Top Arizona school official sets $40M in federal COVID funds for tutoring


PHOENIX — The state’s top school official is setting aside $40 million of federal COVID relief dollars to provide personal tutoring for students who are not meeting proficiency standards for reading or math.

But only a small fraction of the more than 525,000 students in first through eighth grade who need the help are going to get it. And the question of who is tapped could depend on how quickly their parents can register by computer when sign-up begins later this month.

Tom Horne said Tuesday the cash available is being “clawed back” from some other federally funded programs operated by private and nonprofit entities that had been approved by Kathy Hoffman, his predecessor. Michelle Udall, an assistant superintendent, said most of those dollars went to entities that worked inside schools to help compensate for the sharp losses in achievement after many shut down and went to online learning.

Udall said each was given an opportunity to show their programs were working.

Those that could provide evidence of academic achievement will keep getting the cash. Those that could not, she said, were notified their dollars are being cut off.

And there apparently are a lot of them: Udall estimated that total reclaimed dollars could total as much as $75 million of the money the Department of Education received in funds from the American Rescue Plan.

And the decision was made to put at least $40 million of that into more direct services — in this case, tutoring.

“There’s a lot of data nationally to show that tutoring is pretty much the most impactful way to improve student academic outcomes,” said Udall, a former Republican state lawmaker from Mesa.

The new program is designed to provide four hours a week of direct tutoring for six weeks, with the goal being six months’ worth of progress in math or reading during that time. And there’s even an incentive for public school teachers who agree to be tutors: They get not just $30 an hour but an extra $200 for each student who reaches that goal — a figure Horne said could add up to $8,000 for the school year.
And that, he said, has a benefit of its own.

“We must pay our teachers more,’’ Horne said.

“No school is better than the teachers in the classroom,” he continued. “And we’re losing teachers to our surrounding states.”

The more immediate issue for students and their parents is getting access to a tutor.

Horne figures that 60% of students in Grades 1 through 8 are not proficient in reading as measured by standardized tests. And two-thirds fail to meet the standards for math.

In some cases, state education officials acknowledged, there is some overlap with students who are behind in both categories. But they have no hard data.

That produces a figure of at least 525,000 students.

Only thing is, Horne figures the $40 million will pay for about 1.3 million hours of tutoring. Using that figure of 24 hours of help per student — four days a week, six hours a day — that provides enough for only about 54,000 students to get the help they need.

Even assuming some teachers take on three students at once, something permitted under the program, that still puts the maximum enrollment at fewer than 165,000.

Horne rejected a question of the propriety of a press conference to publicize a program that most of those who need the help won’t get it.

“I think improving proficiency for 54,000 is very significant,” he said.

“It doesn’t solve the whole problem,” Horne continued. “We have to deal with the money we’ve got.”

And Horne, a Republican, inserted a political swat.

“We can’t generate money out of thin air even though some Democrats might think we can,” he said.

So how does his office decide who gets the tutoring?

It’s going to depend who is quickest with a computer: The department anticipates that there will be an enrollment form on the agency’s web site as of Sept. 15.

“I don’t know how we could do it, other than first-come, first-served,” Horne said.

The money paid to the tutors is only part of the cost.

Horne said the state is going to contract with a private firm to develop tests that are administered to enrolled students before the tutoring starts and afterwards to determine if they are meeting the anticipated six months’ worth of progress — and the tutors are entitled to a bonus. But he said his agency has dollars above that $40 million for that, ensuring that the test preparation and administration costs won’t cut into tutoring funds.

Horne said the decisions on which existing programs to cancel and take back the remaining funds were not based on his own personal opposition to what he calls “social and emotional learning.”

That is generally defined as tools to help young people regulate their emotions, establish and maintain relationships, and show empathy for others. Horne has said this has no place in the classroom.

But he said Tuesday that wasn’t automatically considered a disqualification from further funding.

“I believe that emotional problems can interfere with learning,” Horne said. “A student (who) comes to school very upset about what’s going on at home, it’s tough for them to learn.”

The key, he said, is showing an academic link.

“If you had a program that was directed towards students’ emotional health, which can affect learning, all you have to do is show us that it did affect learning,” Horne said. “If you can give us data showing that your improvement of student emotional health resulted in better academic progress, then you got to keep the funds.”

Some of the cash for the tutoring program is coming not from canceled programs but from others the Department of Education has found effective but has concluded will not be able to spend all of their allocations by Sept. 30, 2024 — the date in federal law that all the dollars must be spent.

“One of the things we want to be sure is that no money goes back to the federal government,” Horne said.

Nothing in Tuesday’s announcement affects the balance of the $2.7 billion the state got in federal COVID relief dollars which went directly to public schools. Udall said they have used it for various programs designed to get students caught up, including some that have set up their own tutoring efforts.