Published Online: September 1, 2005

Ed. Dept. Allows Chicago to Continue NCLB Tutoring

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The U.S. Department of Education will allow the Chicago school district to serve as a tutoring provider under the No Child Left Behind Act, a reversal that drew national attention for signaling that individual districts will win more flexibility in complying with the increasingly tough mandates of the law.

Similar deals were said to be in the works to enable nine other big-city districts to run their own tutoring programs, even if they have failed to meet state academic goals, which normally would bar them from being providers. As in Chicago’s arrangement, the other cities were expected to be allowed to serve as federally funded tutoring providers in exchange for agreeing to certain conditions.

The Sept. 1 announcement marked the second time in one week that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings enabled more flexibility around tutoring. On Aug. 25, she permitted four districts in Virginia to reverse the normal procedure by offering tutoring to low-income students in struggling schools the year before they allow them to transfer to higher-performing schools.

Ms. Spellings, appearing in Chicago, said such “pilot” programs are designed to see how more children can get the tutoring they need. Studies have shown that only 10 to 20 percent of eligible children are actually served. Chicago has agreed, among other things, to extend its enrollment window, and submit to a third-party evaluation of the program citywide.

“The point of all of these agreements is to give parents better information and more choices, and to help more children get the extra help they need to succeed in school and beyond,” she said in a prepared statement.

New Era

The change of direction in Chicago marked a congenial turn in a dispute between the 431,000-student district—the nation’s third-largest school district—and federal education officials over tutoring. At issue was whether a school district that has failed to meet its state’s academic targets may serve as a provider of the tutoring, or “supplemental educational services,” required by the No Child Left Behind Act. ("Chicago, Ed. Dept. Settle Tutoring Dispute", Feb. 9, 2005.)

Chicago’s situation has been closely watched because of its implications for districts nationwide. As states’ goals under No Child Left Behind get steeper each year, more schools and districts will fall short and have to offer tutoring. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that in the 2004-05 school year, about 10 percent of the nation’s school districts had schools required to offer tutoring. One-quarter of those districts were themselves serving as tutoring providers.

But federal regulations forbid districts to use money set aside for No Child Left Behind to run their own tutoring programs once they are deemed to be in need of improvement. They must find other sources of money, or leave that job to private vendors who win state approval to offer tutoring.

Ms. Spellings’ decision means that Chicago can run its own program using a portion of the Title I money it must set aside to finance the tutoring and choice provisions of the federal law.

Last winter, the district found city and other federal money to continue its tutoring, which served about half the 80,000 children enrolled in such programs there. But it could not afford to keep up that financing scheme for the 2005-06 year, so would have been unable to offer its own program, said Elizabeth F. Swanson, who oversees tutoring programs by the district and 53 private vendors in the city.

Arne Duncan, the district’s chief executive officer, hailed the agreement as “a huge win for Chicago students and for students in urban areas across the country” and deemed it “the most significant change in policy since the No Child Left Behind law was passed.”

Mr. Duncan has long contended that Chicago should be allowed to continue serving as a provider because, while it fell short of state targets, it could demonstrate significant progress in student achievement, and could show that the after-school program played a key role in that progress.

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