California Seeks Waiver on Use of Title I Tutoring Aid

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California is one of eight states still subject to the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. But school districts there could get relief from one of the most onerous pieces of the law, if the U.S. Department of Education gives a green light to the state's latest ask: allowing districts to use money that they now spend on tutoring services to extend learning time.

The move would give California districts greater control over hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Title I money that now is directed to private tutors for students in schools that don't meet the NCLB law's achievement targets.

The waiver would start in the fall and be in place for four years, beyond the end of the Obama administration. Districts would have the option of continuing to spend the money—roughly a fifth of Title I funds for disadvantaged students—on tutoring services or using the aid to extend learning time.

There's a lot of cash at stake. During the 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14 school years, California school districts spent about $507.5 million on tutoring services, said Michael W. Kirst, the president of the state board of education.

"This is not just, 'Take the money and run,' " said Mr. Kirst. "It's on a specific intervention."

Many district officials, he said, think that extending learning time would benefit their students more than tutoring services do.

The Education Department is still reviewing California's request, said Raymonde Charles, a spokeswoman.

A Second Year of Exceptions

The outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

On the one hand, California has already received permission to hit the pause button on its school rating system—something the Education Department offered to all states transitioning to new assessments. (Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Washington were also granted such a pause just last month.)

This marks the second year in a row that the state has requested a pass on its accountability system. The state, like many others, is putting in place new assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Last year, the state was allowed to try out those new measures by doing field testing with all its students.

Field tests aren't meant to be used for accountability purposes. That means the state didn't have to publicly report the test results—a big deviation from the NCLB law.

But California did not get its way on requests dealing with accountability and assessments for students in special education and English-language learners, according to a letter sent to state officials last month from Deborah S. Delisle, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

On special education, California had asked to use field tests with its students who are most cognitively impaired, as well as not report those scores or use them in its accountability system. The department approved California's use of the field test and its suspension of their use for accountability, but said the data still need to be published for all students in special education.

And, Ms. Delisle wrote, California needs to come up with a clear way forward on reporting the results of alternative assessments for students with disabilities. If the state doesn't outline a high-quality plan, it could find itself at risk of losing federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students and federal funds for students in special education.

When it comes to tests for English-learners, California wanted to change its accountability plan for that subgroup. It asked the federal department if it could set a deadline of 2017-18 for having assessments for ELLs aligned with the state's standards fully in place. But the department said California must outline a plan for having the assessments fully in place by 2016-17, or it could risk losing aid for those students, too.

Falling Short

In its letter to the federal Education Department looking for flexibility on the tutoring requirement, the California Department of Education said it had received complaints from districts, tutoring providers, and parents that some providers had falsified enrollment, attendance, and other documents. And, the letter noted, the federal agency's own inspector general also pinpointed instances of fraud and corruption among tutoring providers, in an audit published in October 2013.

The California department says that it has a rigorous process for investigating tutoring-services providers, but that it can take months to actually terminate the contracts of unscrupulous actors.

There's precedent for California's request. The Chicago school system got a similar waiver when now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was the CEO of that district. As education secretary, Mr. Duncan permitted states to allow their districts to get out from under the requirement in the NCLB law that all schools not making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, set aside funding for tutoring and school choice. That was a big factor in many states' decisions to seek the Obama administration's waivers.

Even some states without waivers have been able to get flexibility on the law's tutoring-set-aside requirement. Districts designated for improvement under NCLB in North Dakota and Washington state, for instance, can provide their own tutoring services.

But the entire state of California is much larger—and it is asking to funnel the dollars to extended learning time, which is a key difference.

If California were to get approval for the flexibility, it would be one more blow to tutoring providers, which have suffered serious setbacks since the Obama administration's waivers allowed more than 40 states and the District of Columbia to be relieved of the tutoring requirement.

"Once waivers are granted statewide, it is 'end game,' " said Jim Giovannini, the executive director of the Education Industry Association, based in Parkridge, Ill.

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The trade group screens its members for quality, so Mr. Giovannini feels confident in the providers that belong to his organization. But not everyone is offering great service, he added.

"Let's be honest," he said. "There are companies who have given the industry a bad name."

At the same time, he said, there are plenty of good providers, and students in the Golden State may end up missing out on their help, in his view.

"I feel really bad for students who need these services," Mr. Giovannini said. He suggested that companies that have done a lot of NCLB-style tutoring should begin partnering with districts on other types of services.

Vol. 34, Issue 32, Pages 22, 24

Published in Print: June 3, 2015, as California Seeks Waiver on Use of Federal Title I Tutoring Money
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