Federal Funding Withdrawal Threatens Students’ Access to Online Tutoring Programs

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Photo of students learning in a classroom

Bryan Lee is looking forward to entering high school in the fall. The Dallas eighth grader didn’t always feel prepared, though; like most students during the pandemic, Lee fell behind on his work and struggled to keep up. It wasn’t until his school implemented online tutoring programs that he received the help he needed.

“The pandemic really affected Bryan’s formative years,” says Michael Lee, Bryan’s father. “Middle school is tough and I tried helping him as much as I could at home, but we needed professional help.”

It’s no surprise that challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have included a decline in K-12 students’ academic scores overall. In 2022, the Biden Administration launched the National Partnership for Student Success to combat education decline by supporting virtual learning and tutoring programs. Soon afterward, the Texas Education Agency launched the Vetted Texas Tutor Corps, through which approved tutoring providers could support the implementation of high-impact learning and help school districts meet requirements for supplemental accelerated instruction.

Bryan Lee began online tutoring after school and on the weekends. Lee went over his math, science, and English assignments on a weekly basis with a professional tutor. Within six months of joining the program, Michael Lee noticed a change in his son’s confidence, which remained with him when he returned to in-person classes.

“We’re still enrolled in the tutoring program,” says the elder Lee. “We hope this can continue because he has improved, but we still need more help.”

But funds for the federal program, an estimated $122 billion, are set to expire in September 2024, leaving many educators worried.

“It will be interesting to see what this administration decides to do when the funding expires,”  says Vincent Forese, President of Link-Systems International (LSI), whose NetTutor service is the longest-running online tutoring company in the United States. “We have already seen them extend the ability to use the funds through the Spring of 2026. It’s not clear what happens when school districts hit the fiscal cliff at the start of the 2024-2025 school year. It would be hard to watch successful tutoring programs come to an end because districts can’t afford them without additional federal funding.”

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Vincent Forese, President of Link-Systems International (LSI)

Throughout his 20+ years in business, Forese says he’s seen an increase in both the amount of online tutoring users and successes of students and schools using their programs. NetTutor, he says, has a long history of providing online tutoring support to students when it’s been integrated within a school’s ecosystem, keeping help just one click away.

“Unfortunately, underrepresented students are the most impacted by these budget cuts,” Forese says. That population includes Michael Lee, who depends on the school’s subsidized tutoring program to help his son.

Studies show that online tutoring is beneficial for students, and when utilized on a regular basis, can lift student achievement across all subject areas and grade levels. Tutoring is also helpful for students who are behind by a grade level. One study in particular showed significant improvement in sixth through eighth grade students’ social skills, aspirations, and psychological well-being, including those of lower socioeconomic status.

Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, which offers NetTutor to its students, has already seen an improvement in standardized testing nearing pre-pandemic levels. About 58% of CUSD students were proficient in language arts last year, up 2% from 2021, and only down 1% from 2019 before the pandemic hit. In math, 53% of students were proficient in 2022, an increase of 4% over 2021.

Dr. Jessica Fletcher, the district’s Executive Director of Accountability, Assessment, and Research, isn’t surprised by the high percentages, given the district’s consistent history above state averages. “What is really important that I want us to focus on,” she told Chandler News, “is given we’re returning from a pandemic, our (language arts) results are only 1% away from 2019, which are pre-pandemic. We did make some great strides in math—we moved from 49% to 53%. But we still have a 5% return that we need to get back to those pre-COVID proficiency rates.”

Yet with the budget cuts delivered through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), tutoring programs may be reduced or even removed entirely by 2025.

“Since it’s clear that the students and their families can’t bear the cost of the additional help they need, some form of funding will be required to keep these services available to students,” says Forese. “If these funds don’t come from the federal government, then it will be up to the state legislators to give the districts the money needed. It’s clear that most districts won’t be able to afford this out of their existing funding.”

“The top answer from the nationally representative, online survey of 277 district leaders, 185 principals, and 401 teachers is a reality check: That there are no funding sources to make up for federal stimulus funds. Forty-five percent of respondents say their district will just have to reduce expenses.

Others say their districts will turn to their regular general funds (43 percent) or state funding (27 percent). Fewer than a quarter of K-12 officials say they will rely on any of the four strains of federal Title funding – the country’s largest ongoing federal aid program for elementary and secondary education.” – ED WEEK

Bryan Lee says he wants the programs to continue as he begins high school. He’ll continue online tutoring over the summer, hoping it will help prepare him for freshman year.

Interviewees’ names have been changed at their request.

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