Horne cancels $70 million in COVID-19 funding to set up tutoring program
State schools chief Tom Horne is canceling millions of dollars in contracts funded by COVID-19 aid that his Democratic predecessor awarded to Arizona education programs in order to funnel the money into a new tutoring program for struggling students. But the tutoring will help only about 10% of the students who are falling behind academically.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arizona received three federally funded grants totaling more than $4 billion to bolster public schools and improve student outcomes. Former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman awarded money from the third grant package to organizations that, among others, support teacher training and the social and emotional health of students, a particular focus of her administration. Recipients included the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Valley and Playworks Arizona, which serves low-income schools and teaches inclusivity and conflict resolution via play.
On Sept. 6, Horne, a Republican who has vowed to raise academic achievement, announced that his office has eliminated and reduced ESSER-funded contracts by as much as $70 million. Of that, $40 million will be earmarked for a new tutoring program aimed at students in first grade through eighth who failed to meet a proficiency benchmark on state assessments.
“We have to make up for the deficiencies of our predecessors and make sure that the students learn more and we have better academic progress,” Horne said at a Tuesday news conference.
Students who qualify will be able to take advantage of extra help four times a week for six weeks. Teachers who choose to tutor can teach a maximum of three students per six-week session, earning $30 an hour. And $200 bonuses would be awarded for every student who shows a one-half year academic gain between the pre-test administered at the start of the tutoring session and the post-test at its end.
It’s unlikely, however, that the funding will pay for tutoring sessions for more than a fraction of students who failed to meet state standards. There are at least 525,000 students who tested below proficiency in at least one subject, and the $40 million would cover tutoring sessions for only about 54,000 of them.
But Horne dismissed that criticism, saying any help is valuable.
“It doesn’t solve the whole problem,” he said. “We can’t generate money out of thin air and we have to deal with the money we have, but a 40 million dollar program — for 1.3 million hours of tutoring — is very major.”
Neither will the program target the populations most affected by pandemic-related learning loss. High poverty schools spent more time, on average, doing remote learning, and the inequality between minority students and their peers that already existed was exacerbated. Instead, the program will be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, with applications set to launch on the department of education’s website on Sept. 15.
“Race has nothing to do with it, I’m looking purely at academic performance,” said Horne.
If the program is successful, Horne anticipates taking the idea to the state legislature to continue it beyond the ESSER funding’s September 2024 deadline.
Organizations left in the lurch
As many as 27 contracts were eliminated entirely or reduced. On Aug. 18, the Arizona Department of Education, which Horne oversees, contacted organizations awarded grants under Hoffman and gave them five days to prove their work was improving students’ academic achievement. If an organization could present tangible data showing the benefits of its programs, but wasn’t spending enough to use up its award by 2024, the contract was simply readjusted to cover the rest of the grant period. Any leftover money will be returned to the federal government.
Among those cut off completely was Playworks Arizona, which focuses on creating a welcoming environment during recess to improve student’s well-being. Last year, more than 22,000 Arizona students experienced the structured play offered by the organization. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Beth Eisen said Playworks was still in discussions with the department of education about restoring its grant.
“Last school year, 94% of educators in Playworks Arizona partner schools agreed that Playworks helps to create a supportive learning environment in their schools,” Eisen said. “We remain steadfast in our belief that every child in Arizona should benefit from safe and healthy play every day.”
Horne on Tuesday noted that, despite the five-day deadline, organizations still have the opportunity to prove they deserve to keep their funding. While $70 million was pulled back, only $40 million is currently set aside for the tutoring grants. The rest is a buffer in case an organization earns back its funding and will also be used to pay for the development of the tests used during the tutoring sessions to show improvement levels.
Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, was unimpressed by Horne’s decision to rescind contracts.
“Once again, Tom Horne is giving us a side show,” she said, in an emailed statement. “He is throwing unneeded chaos into the work of programs serving kids and reneging on promises made to families so that he can get a cheap headline.”