Feds tighten tutoring rules under NCLB

Decisions in Florida by the U.S. Department of Education, if implemented nationwide, would bar groups affiliated with school systems rated “in need of improvement” from participating in the tutoring program mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Entities likely to be barred from the program–worth an estimated $2 billion a year in federal funding–include teacher unions, child-care centers, after-school programs, voc-ed or computer centers, and parents’ groups.

The move represents a potential boon for private, third-party providers in the region. It also holds national implications for districts that are considering offering such tutoring–or supplemental education services (SES)–themselves, because (a) it reaffirms ED’s general position that no district in need of improvement is allowed to serve as its own SES provider; and (b) it further clarifies that the prohibition also applies to groups and programs affiliated with such school systems.

Prospects for the nationwide ban emerged with the release of an ED communiqué affecting at least three Florida school systems. All were rated “in need of improvement” under NCLB. None of the schools systems, nor any affiliated group, could be SES providers for struggling students and instead must find private, third-party tutors for these pupils, according to ED.

The Florida districts in question–including Hillsborough, Suwannee, and Brevard counties–are all considered “in need of improvement” under NCLB rules and therefore cannot serve as providers of supplemental educational services (SES) to underperforming students. According to an Oct. 13 report in the St. Petersburg Times, these districts instead were planning to tutor students indirectly, through district-affiliated organizations such as community education labs, vocational technology centers, and after-school child care programs. In New York, teacher unions also have stepped up to be SES providers.

In Florida, the state education department initially approved the plans of the school systems in question, recognizing the affiliated school organizations as valid SES providers. But amid complaints from private tutoring firms and direction from federal officials, Florida’s education department reversed its position.

In an Oct. 12 letter to superintendents, state officials asked them to halt free tutoring services and provide the parents of children currently enrolled in such programs with viable alternatives. “Any organization affiliated with a school district that is ‘in need of improvement’ may not serve as a provider,” the letter said. “To the extent your district … [has] mistakenly enrolled students, please provide us information about how you will make sure parents have information about and an opportunity to enroll their students in other eligible providers.”

Under NCLB, schools that fail for three consecutive years to meet their state’s standards for adequate yearly progress, or AYP–a set of benchmarks for annual improvement established individually by each state–must offer parents of low-income (Title I) students their choice of tutoring from among a state-approved list of SES providers. Districts can use between 5 percent and 15 percent of their Title I funds to pay for this tutoring, but they must spend at least 5 percent of their Title I funding on SES if parents of eligible students request such services.

The SES rules have spawned a whole new industry in education–one that analysts estimate could exceed $2 billion a year within the next few years. Since the law’s inception in 2001, more than 1,800 SES providers have lined up across the country to begin taking advantage of these revenues.

In Florida alone, more than 350,000 students are eligible for such services, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

The Florida ruling comes as a handful of other districts across the country have asked for, and received, flexibility in how they meet NCLB’s tutoring provisions.

Earlier this year, ED showed a willingness to bend the rules when it granted an exception allowing four Virginia school districts to offer free tutoring services to students before offering them voluntary transfers to better-performing schools, as required by law.

And in August, federal officials granted a similar waiver to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The decision marked a change in stance for Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who previously had advocated for by-the-letter enforcement of the law’s provisions. The waiver paved the way for the nation’s third-largest school district to serve as its own tutoring provider, despite its failure to meet AYP for at least three consecutive years.

The waiver was granted only after several Illinois school officials, including CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, complained that the district’s tutoring program was sound and a preferable option for many students and parents. By offering students mandatory tutoring on its own, Duncan estimated the school system could save money and reach more students in need of extra help.

If forced to go solely with private providers, Duncan said, his district would have enough money to purchase tutoring for just 24,000 students–a far cry from the nearly 80,000 who signed up to receive help.

The controversy began after ED reportedly sent letters to Chicago and three other Illinois school districts demanding that any district deemed “in need of improvement” cease offering tutoring services to students.

The move outraged Duncan, who argued that CPS could provide more affordable opportunities and reach more students than many of the approved private tutoring outfits doing business in the region.

“The federal government has ensured that the cost of providing these tutoring services will skyrocket,” warned Duncan earlier this year.

While CPS spends an average of $400 per child to tutor students itself, officials said, the cost jumps to nearly $1,500 per child whenever a private provider takes over.

“If this is what the law calls for, then the law should be changed,” said Duncan, who requested that federal officials be more lenient in their enforcement of NCLB–especially in a district like Chicago, where more than 74 percent of students reportedly showed improvements in test scores last year.

ED eventually acquiesced to Chicago’s request and granted the district a waiver–the first of its kind under the law.

Spellings and other federal officials billed the waiver as evidence that ED is willing to provide some flexibility in how it interprets the law, as long as school systems can provide federal officials with evidence that they are serious about improving student achievement.

“Achievement is the bottom line,” said Chad Colby, ED’s deputy press secretary, in an interview with eSchool News. “We’ve made it very clear … if you’re in need of improvement, you cannot be a provider.”

But, he said, ED is willing to grant certain exceptions–such as the one in Chicago–on a case-by-case basis.

Colby said ED granted the waiver to CPS as part of a year-long pilot, and officials plan to use the experience to decide whether to offer similar exceptions in the future. As part of the agreement, he said, CPS has to provide periodic progress reports to federal officials and must continue to show marked improvements, or it runs the risk of violating the agreement.

According to Colby, ED already is “talking to some other cities” about the possibility of creating similar agreements, though he wouldn’t say which ones.

So far, Colby said, Florida has not asked the department for a waiver. “If they came to us, we would listen to what they had to say,” he said.

At press time, Florida officials could not say whether the state planned to ask for such a waiver.


U.S. Department of Education

Florida Department of Education

Chicago Public Schools

eSchool News Staff

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