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Published in Print: April 25, 2001, as Federal Aid for Tutoring Gathers Momentum

Federal Aid for Tutoring Gathers Momentum

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When President Bush advocates tough consequences for failing public schools, most attention turns to his proposal to allow federal money to go toward private school vouchers. Democrats love to hate it, and have vowed to block it.

But another option Mr. Bush wants—allowing students to take a portion of a failing school's federal aid to pay for private tutoring—received scant notice until recently, when leading Senate Democrats signaled their tentative support.

As Congress works to overhaul the federal role in schools, the tutoring provision could bridge the differences between supporters and opponents of vouchers. But like any patch of political middle ground, the proposal is subject to shelling from both sides.

"It appears that it's more a political compromise than it might be of educational worth," Vincent F. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said of the idea. "We see it as the first step toward what could eventually become a full-blown voucher program."

On the other hand, Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, suggests that the tutoring option, by itself, might disappoint those who like vouchers.

"It's very thin gruel for advocates of school choice," he said. "But practically, it's probably the best [the president] would get out of the Senate."

With the Senate evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, compromise is a legislative fact of life and will be essential to efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Lawmakers failed to complete work on the legislation during the 106th Congress, when Senate Republicans had a larger, though not filibuster-proof, advantage. At press time, the Senate was expected to take up its reauthorization bill, S 1, this week.

Just three days after his inauguration, President Bush unveiled his own blueprint for changing the federal role in schools. A central element was to give parents more options when their children attend poor-performing schools that receive federal aid under Title I, the ESEA's flagship program.

If such a school did not turn around in three years, students could take a portion of the school's federal dollars—matched by state money—to attend another school, whether public or private, or to pay for supplemental educational services, such as tutoring.

When the Senate education committee approved S 1 last month, those provisions were excluded. But after later negotiations, key Senate Democrats announced that as part of an overall compromise, they would back allowing those federal funds to pay transportation costs for attending another public school or to pay for supplemental services.

While the compromise would exclude private school vouchers, Republicans plan to offer a floor amendment restoring that element. Senators' aides on both sides of the aisle cautioned last week that the deal was still being hammered out, and that the biggest remaining obstacle was Democrats' demand for substantially more education spending than the president has put forward.

While still short on details, the preliminary agreement on supplemental services as described by Senate aides would allow up to 15 percent of a school district's Title I funding to go toward that purpose. Some money under two other federal programs could also be used.

Who Tutors?

The tutoring services could be provided by for-profit companies such as Sylvan Learning Systems, by school districts themselves, or by community-based organizations. The providers would have to come from a state- approved list, however. The legislation would also make clear that no religious instruction would be permissible as part of the tutoring.

Senate aides said that after a meeting last Thursday, it was agreed that while parents would select who would tutor their children, school districts would handle the arrangements. But a district could opt to provide parents with a certificate they could take to approved providers. The amount of money would be based on a district's per-pupil allocation under Title I, the aide said.

When President Bush has talked about the idea, he has suggested that about $1,500 on average would be available per child, with half coming from federal coffers and half from the state. But Senate aides said last week that the figure could be substantially smaller.

While taking away a portion of a school's Title I aid to pay for tutoring would be a significant change, the idea of spending federal aid—including from Title I—on private tutoring is not new. For example, nearly 200 school districts have contracted with Sylvan to provide in-school supplemental services.

"Title I is usually the first entrée" for such programs, said Paula R. Singer, the president of Sylvan Education Solutions, a division of the Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems. But, she added, "there's a wide variety [of funding sources] depending on what they're trying to accomplish." Those include federal, state, and local money.

Also, under the Reading Excellence Act, approved in 1998, a small portion of the law's funds are available to high-need districts for so-called tutorial- assistance grants. The grants enable a district to offer parents options for after-school tutoring for their children. Asked about the new tutoring proposal, Ms. Singer said last week that she found it "very interesting" but still had some questions.

"How does it get managed?" she said. "If you start taking away a percentage of [a school's federal aid], what's the impact in the public school on schoolwide reform efforts? Who will be qualified to do this? What criteria will be used?"

Affordability could be an issue. Sylvan's retail centers, for example, typically charge up to $40 per hour. At that rate, Mr. Bush's estimate of $1,500 would pay for roughly 40 hours. If a student were tutored for two hours a week, that would cover about five months. Ms. Singer said Sylvan's in-school contracts with districts were substantially less expensive.

David A. Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, raised a different question.

"What's the difference in giving [the federal aid] to a private tutor or a private school?" he said. "Taking scarce Title I dollars out of schools raises a whole slew of red flags."

Vol. 20, Issue 32, Pages 26,28

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