Published Online: January 4, 2005
Published in Print: January 5, 2005, as Chicago Resisting Federal Directive On NCLB Tutoring

Chicago Resisting Federal Directive on NCLB Tutoring

Federal authorities have told the low-performing Chicago school district that it must stop providing tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act. But the district has refused, producing a standoff between U.S. education officials and the country’s third-largest school system.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago schools, said that his district would continue to serve as a provider of tutoring services. Stopping would disrupt tutoring for tens of thousands of children, he said, an outcome he views as absurd and contrary to the intent of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The authors of the law had the best of intentions for kids,” he said in a December interview. “But you can’t blindly follow rules that hurt kids, that are absent of logic.”

Arne Duncan

The U.S. Department of Education responded by suggesting that Mr. Duncan was engaging in political gamesmanship. Federal officials gave Illinois education leaders until early this month to ensure that the district follows regulations that bar districts that fall short of state performance goals from using federal funds to serve as tutors.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, Title I schools that fail to make sufficient progress for three consecutive years must offer free tutoring to low-income students, through private vendors or the school district, using a portion of their Title I funds. Districts that fall short of their states’ academic goals may still provide the tutoring, but cannot use the federal money to do so.

Regulations prohibit districts from serving as providers of “supplemental educational services,” or tutoring, if they have failed to meet their states’ benchmarks for adequate progress under the law.

State and federal officials were discussing the Chicago situation, but by last week, no agreement had been reached.

Too Strict a View?

Chicago officials believe the law should be applied with greater flexibility. They view the district’s academic progress last school year as a sign that it is qualified to provide tutoring for struggling students.

Eugene W. Hickok

Eugene W. Hickok, the outgoing U.S. deputy secretary of education, acknowledged in an interview that the district has made strides, but said that it still falls short of being qualified to provide tutoring. Granting exceptions to the law, he said, would only undermine its intent to ensure that underprivileged children secure high-quality academic help if their school districts have failed them.

“It’s very important not just for the department, but for the nation, to stand firm,” Mr. Hickok said. “If districts aren’t able to get the job done, why should they be eligible for more money to not get the job done again?”

Jeff Simering, the director of legislative services for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for large urban districts, said the regulations are overly restrictive, given the law’s phrasing. The law allows tutoring by entities with a “demonstrated record of effectiveness,” a definition he believes applies to Chicago’s after-school programs.

Illinois education officials had asked the federal Department of Education to allow Chicago and 10 other districts to continue serving as tutoring providers, even though preliminary data suggested they could be deemed “in need of improvement” under the federal law. ("Districts Spar With Ed. Dept. Over Tutoring," Nov. 3, 2004.)

But in a Dec. 2 response, Mr. Hickok refused to grant the exceptions. To enforce the regulations, he said, the state may withhold federal funding or force districts to repay federal funds.

Final Illinois test data were issued Dec. 15, showing that one of the 11 districts had met state benchmarks and so was free to continue serving as a tutor, said Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the state education department. Chicago and nine others were formally notified that they had fallen short of the requirements.

About 82,000 of Chicago’s 434,000 students are receiving supplemental services this school year. About 40,000 chose Chicago’s own program. The rest opted for private providers.

Mr. Hickok’s letter said Chicago must stop imposing a $1,500-per-student cap on the reimbursement that private tutoring vendors may receive from the district under the program, and abide instead by the state’s $2,200 cap. That change means Chicago would be able to afford to offer private-sector tutoring for only 24,000 children, said Beth Swanson, the director of Chicago’s after-school programs.

If Chicago stopped its own program, the district would have to halt tutoring services for those served by private providers as well, while it re-evaluated which children should get priority, as required by the No Child Left Behind law, she said.

Though its own tutoring programs average about 15 students per teacher, compared with eight or 10 in programs run by the city’s 28 private providers, Ms. Swanson said a recent parent-satisfaction survey ranked the district’s own programs first or second in relation to those run by private vendors. “We’ve got to be doing something right,” she said.

Private Capacity

Some question whether private-sector tutors could absorb enough displaced students. Gene Wade, the chief executive officer of New York City-based Platform Learning, Chicago’s largest such provider with 13,500 students in 76 schools, said it would take time to expand programming.

“Any provider who says, I can ramp up overnight and take on tens of thousands of kids, isn’t being honest,” Mr. Wade said. “It will be weeks. It could end up being months.”

Mr. Duncan said he felt caught in a double bind. Waiting for final test data would have delayed tutoring until winter and rendered it difficult to serve large numbers of children, but choosing to enroll children last spring, as he did, not knowing the final data, is now forcing him to choose between cutting back or resisting federal mandates.

Mr. Hickok said he warned Mr. Duncan by telephone in September that there would be problems with the tutoring program if his district failed to meet state benchmarks.

Vol. 24, Issue 16, Pages 1,15

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