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The state is about to launch a literacy program named after the late Steve Carter, a veteran state representative who championed efforts to improve reading skills among students.

The state is preparing to launch a scaled-down version of a program to aid students with reading problems that is named after the late Steve Carter, who championed literacy for years when he served in the Legislature.

The Steve Carter Literacy Program won unanimous legislative approval last year amid Louisiana’s struggles to get more students reading on grade level.

Families can qualify for $1,000 vouchers, which can be used for tutoring services for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. But lawmakers failed to fund the initiative, which carries an annual tab of $159 million.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said last year the state would use $40 million of federal stimulus money to get the program off the ground; it is set to launch in October.

About 38,000 students stand to benefit from the vouchers. If the program were fully funded, about 160,000 students could qualify, based on 2021 data.

Jenna Chiasson, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, said Thursday that the program can make a difference.

“What we know about children who are struggling with reading is that they will benefit most from explicit, systematic instruction based on the science of reading,” Chiasson said. “That one-on-one tutoring by a qualified tutor will be able to address those child-specific needs in literacy.”

Children eligible for the aid will be identified by school systems.

Students in kindergarten, first, second and third grades will be selected based on whether they are reading below grade level as shown by a literacy screening at the start of the school year. Fourth and fifth graders will qualify if they scored below proficient in their English language arts assessment on the LEAP test from the previous school year.

Families will be able to enroll their children using an online portal, and they can pick the tutoring service. How often their children get assistance is up to them.

Barely half of K-3 children are reading on grade level, and those who finish the third grade behind their peers often struggle throughout their school years and have a greater chance of dropping out in high school.

Even more concerning is that the problem is getting worse.

Only 42% of kindergarten students were reading on or above grade level, according to 2021 figures. In 2016, a total of 54% met that standard. Reading skills for first, second and third graders all fell between 2016-21.

Only 55% of fourth graders are reading on grade level, according to 2019 results on the nation’s report card. It was the same in 2011.

The law that set up the program said the funding was “subject to appropriation,” which means it will be stalled until a funding source is found.

The $40 million will cover two school years, with $20 million allocated for each year. The money comes from the 10% of $4 billion in federal stimulus funds that was left to the discretion of the state Department of Education. The other 90% was allocated to the school districts.

Whether the federal aid will pave the way for a permanent state funding source is unclear. Brumley said officials will monitor progress on the tutoring before any decisions on future financing.

The superintendent has made literacy a key priority, and Louisiana’s top school board on Wednesday gave final approval to Brumley’s plan to set up Louisiana’s first accountability system for students in kindergarten, first and second grades.

How those students fare on reading assessments will be included in annual LEAP results starting in the 2024-25 school year.

Carter was a three-term state representative from Baton Rouge whose tenure included time as chairman of the House Education Committee. He died of COVID-19 complications in 2021.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.