At the start of the pandemic, I became bothered by a question. There were widespread expectations that the disruption to schooling would lead to both broad-based and deep learning loss resulting in a generational impact on student progress that could lead to even greater inequities in outcomes. In the educational groups in which I was circling, tutoring consistently came up as one of the best solutions for students who were falling behind.
The bothersome question, however, is, “How would we pay for ongoing, universal tutoring once emergency funding ran out?” While I believe the funding to pay for tutoring needs to come from government sources, philanthropic organizations have a critical role to play in making that happen.
School closures during the pandemic resulted in widespread learning loss
In October 2022, the Department of Education released math and reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The education world had been anxiously awaiting the first NAEP release since the COVID-19 pandemic led to nationwide school shutdowns and emergency remote learning. While many observers expected some decline in scores, the results were alarmingly dismal, with the largest drops ever recorded in 4th and 8th-grade math. These losses were especially pronounced among students from underestimated communities (low income, BIPOC). Math is also the subject, and middle school is the age group, where we have historically seen the most significant divergence among groups and the greatest increase in educational inequity. More recently, NCES released updated math and reading scores for 13 year-olds showing an ongoing and disquieting decline in proficiency across both areas, with a generation of progress now lost.
High-quality individual tutoring is one of the best solutions
There is a strong research base for the benefits of one-on-one tutoring for students performing below grade level. While extensive tutoring support was part of the Supplemental Educational Services programs supported by No Child Left Behind, Federal funding was phased out with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Moreover, a lack of coordination among stakeholders and programs has meant inconsistent support. Targeted approaches to scaling school-wide tutoring nationally, such as focusing on K-8 Title I schools, would cost between $5 and $15 billion annually. Scaling up high-quality individual tutoring nationally requires a coalition of partners as well as creative design.
The emergency response invested heavily in tutoring
The notion that tutoring could be a salve was widespread at the start of the pandemic, and significant funding went into it during the crisis. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, the second largest school district in the country with over 600,000 students, signed a five-year MOU with StepUp Tutoring, a local nonprofit, to provide free tutoring to students online with volunteers across the country. The school district also contracted with Paper, a for-profit tutoring provider, to give more options to students.
The LAUSD example points to two intersecting trends:
- First, ESSER funding made the broad application of tutoring possible by creating demand, as opposed to need. That is, while we know tutoring is necessary to close the opportunity gap, if there is not money to be spent on it, there is no demand in the strict economic sense.
- Second, this increase in demand made the sector attractive to venture funding, what Tyton’s Adam Newman called the “2021-2022 tutoring gold rush.” The enthusiasm around tutoring this time was different, Adam wrote, both because the edtech evolution has provided multiple tools and models that were not available before, and because there are venture dollars funding scale and growth.
In another promising development, America Achieves raised $100 million in philanthropy to launch Accelerate, a new national nonprofit organization to support the expansion of high-quality tutoring systems in the nation’s schools. In October of 2022, Accelerate granted $10 million to 31 education and research partners to “develop and scale sustainable, cost-effective models for high-impact tutoring that boost academic achievement for students.” The grants support both innovative programs and research focused on specific barriers to making high-impact tutoring affordable, accessible, and sustainable.
An excise tax to fund universal tutoring
While private investment in tutoring and a $100M philanthropic commitment to improve tutoring are a positive development, on their own they are insufficient to scale tutoring to truly make a dent in learning loss. More importantly, they don’t represent revenues that generate a sustainable business model. With ESSER funding set to expire in September 2024, what we need is a massive and consistent infusion of funding to cover tutoring for all well into the future.
One potential source of funding is a local sugary drinks taxes to fund one-on-one tutoring for every student in local school districts performing under grade level. Local excise taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks have successfully been used to fund universal preschool education in Philadelphia. California’s FirstFive has been funded by excise taxes on tobacco products since 1998. A similar program, administered at the local level, can be used to support universal one-on-one tutoring for underperforming students.
In addition to helping improve education for our children, a sugary drinks tax will support better health. Schools play an important part in the health and wellbeing of our students. Yet, the lowest performing schools are also the ones with the highest rates of obesity. According to the CDC, frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout.
Reviving tutoring programs at the district level, supporting them through local excise taxes, and increasing coordination efforts among stakeholders can assure their longevity while providing a necessary and impactful service for our neediest students.
What can be the role of philanthropies in making this happen?
Scaling tutoring nationally necessitates building a highly coordinated coalition of funding and operational partners. These efforts need to build broad-based and bipartisan support for universal tutoring by doing the following:
- Recruiting parent advocates, partner organizations, and policy makers to the cause
- Researching the best legal and policy pathways
- Developing messaging and an advocacy framework
- Gaining buy-in from the private and public sector for an excise tax
To my mind, the best organizations to lead such an effort are philanthropic foundations. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a rise in more coordinated and collaborative efforts among philanthropic organizations working on a range of social, economic, and environmental issues. These organizations have an outsized influence on the direction institutions take and their work can help shape policy, accelerate innovation, and focus efforts.
While the generosity of funders cannot be understated (total foundation giving was nearly $91B in the boom year of 2021, with an estimated 14% going to education) that support is equivalent to 2% of the federal government’s annual education budget. Yet, by leaning into the power of their influence, rather than the power of their dollars, philanthropic foundations can bring to bear the full weight of their social capital on creating change.
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