Help is on the way for struggling young readers in the Pelican State, thanks to some inspiration from the Sunshine State.
Lawmakers in Louisiana recently approved HB 85, which established a statewide reading scholarship program named for the late state Rep. Steve Carter, a former Louisiana House education chairman who died in January from COVID-19 complications. Carter was known for his support of statewide school choice scholarships.
The program, approved on a unanimous bipartisan vote, was modeled after a similar one in Florida, which was the first of its kind in the nation when lawmakers approved it in 2018. The program served 5,375 Florida students in its inaugural year and 6,285 students during 2019-20. Figures released last week show that 3,496 students were found eligible in 2020-21, although the actual number may be higher; standardized tests, which are used to determine eligibility, were not given in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“This literacy program was the final legislative initiative championed by Rep. Steve Carter before leaving the legislature in 2020,” said Kelli Bottger, American Federation for Children’s Regional Government Affairs Director. “Rep. Carter worked tirelessly throughout his career to ensure Louisiana’s children, regardless of their ZIP code or income level, had access to a quality education through school choice. His idea couldn’t come at a better time when far too many Louisiana children are dealing with significant learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Louisiana program offers parents of struggling readers access to an annual $1,000 reading scholarship account, a type of education savings account that can be used for tuition and fees related to part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and more.
Scholarship accounts will be available to public school students in grades K-5 who have reading difficulties which, according to the legislature, is about 160,000 students, and students in kindergarten through third grade who either read below grade level or are deemed “at risk” for reading difficulties.
The program also is designed to help fourth and fifth graders “who scored below mastery in English language arts on the state assessment in the prior school year” or were “recommended by an English teacher.”
“Louisiana students have struggled with literacy for decades,” Rep. Scott McKnight (R-Baton Rouge) said in April when he introduced the bill to the House Education Committee. “It’s time for literacy to become a priority in our state.”
Modeled after the Florida program, the Louisiana program includes some key differences. It doubles the scholarship amount and covers three additional grades, though the state is still searching for a way to pay for the program’s projected $159 million cost.
Florida’s program offers $500 per student in grades 3 through 5 who scored a performance level of 1 or 2 on the English Language test, with priority given to students who are classified as English Language Learners. The program pays for tuition and fees related to part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curricula related to reading or literacy.
Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, administrates Florida’s Reading Scholarship Program.
Florida lawmakers expanded the state’s literacy improvement efforts when they approved HB 7011, which identifies and helps students who have deficiencies in reading by implementing voluntary pre-K through eighth grade screening and progress monitoring. HB 3, championed by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, gives free books for academically struggling K-5 students, with the goal of helping them overcome literacy challenges.
Sprowls, in promoting the new reading initiatives, said that while Florida has made amazing strides in reading in recent years, “it would take 230 years for every child in the state to read at grade level” at current progress levels.
Recent results from the Florida Department of Education show the average drop in third grade reading scores was 4 percentage points statewide. Overall, 54% of third graders passed the spring exams compared to 58% in 2019 when the tests were given before testing was canceled due to the pandemic.
About half of the 67 districts in 2021 had larger drops then the 4-point figure, the state data show.
According to information for parents prepared by the Department, third grade is when students who are behind in reading have more difficulty. Florida law says third graders who do not score at least a Level 2 on the state reading test will not be promoted to fourth grade.