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Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG The literacy law under scrutiny is named after the late former state Rep. Steve Carter, a longtime champion of making reading improvements for students.

While well below what friends of the late Steve Carter are aiming for, state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he plans to use $40 million in federal stimulus dollars in part to tackle Louisiana’s dismal reading problem.

Brumley said the state Department of Education clearly lacks the funds needed to finance a 2021 bill named after Carter: a former state representative, a candidate for Baton Rouge mayor-president, and a student reading champion who died of COVID-19 complications last January.

The measure, House Bill 85, provides students from kindergarten through fifth grade with reading problems up to $1,000 per year to get help from experts.

However, the annual tab is $159 million, and the Legislature failed to provide a way to fund the ambitious program.

Brumley said he is launching "our version" of the bill that would provide tutoring to qualified families for children struggling in math or English. Families would get vouchers so they could hire tutors of their choosing.

"We are working through the legal processes to get that up and going," he said during a recent meeting with the editorial board of The Advocate.

No one disputes the problem.

Only 43% of kindergarten students read on grade level, 54% of first graders, 56% of second graders and 53% of third graders.

Brumley said 117,000 students – roughly 17% of enrollment – attend schools rated "D" or "F" by the state.

The legislation is called the Steve Carter Literacy Program.

Carter was elected to the state House in 2007, where he served three terms, including time as chairman of the House Education Committee.

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Some longtime friends of the late lawmaker have questioned why the state cannot do more, especially since public schools are getting about $4 billion from three rounds of federal aid to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Scott McKnight, R-Baton Rouge and sponsor of the bill, said Tuesday he has exchanged messages with Brumley, but has not talked to him about the superintendent's plan.

McKnight said he knew all along that landing dollars for the reading initiative would be difficult.

"But I felt that it was important to get the program established," he said. "We hope to get some money in coming years, to start chipping away."

The money Brumley plans to use for tutoring is part of the 10% set aside from the federal dollars flowing into the state.

Local school districts are getting 90% of the money and Brumley said in June he is directing school systems to prioritize literacy.

Reading problems in Louisiana have gone on for generations.

However, the pandemic has complicated literacy and other longtime challenges for public schools after 18 months of classroom upheaval.

"The current health crisis and weather-related events has caused an unprecedented disruption in the education of students throughout Louisiana," the department said in documents related to the tutoring effort.

"As school systems resume instruction, they must plan for the unfinished learning students have experienced as a result of the pandemic and hurricanes."

 


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.