Chicago, Ed. Dept. Settle Tutoring Dispute

By Catherine Gewertz — February 08, 2005 4 min read
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The Chicago school district will continue to tutor 40,000 students under the No Child Left Behind Act, but will have to use money other than that earmarked for the program, a move that resolves a stalemate between the school system and federal education officials.

Officials in the nation’s third-largest district announced last week that they would cover the $5 million anticipated cost of the tutoring program for the rest of the school year by diverting $4 million from their summer school budget and accepting $1 million in federal school improvement funds from the state of Illinois.

“It’s a big win for kids,” said Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 430,000-student district. “That was our only goal from day one, to not see kids hurt.”

School districts are required by the federal law to provide free tutoring to students from low-income families whose schools fail to make sufficient academic progress three years in a row. Chicago offers its own program to 40,000 students, and private tutoring companies serve another 42,000.

But federal officials had warned Illinois that Chicago was violating regulations by using No Child Left Behind money to finance its district-run program when the district itself had failed to meet state benchmarks. Chicago school leaders said they wouldn’t disrupt the program in the middle of the year. (“Chicago Resisting Federal Directive on NCLB Tutoring,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

After talks with city and state education leaders, U.S. Department of Education officials agreed not to make Chicago repay the federal money the district spent on its own program during the first semester, and to allow it to proceed with other money for the rest of the school year, said Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the Illinois education department.

Smaller Illinois districts that also found themselves barred from providing their own tutoring after failing to meet state benchmarks are resolving their conflicts by finding private tutoring companies to step in midyear, or by securing state permission for one particular school that did make adequate progress to offer the tutoring, Ms. Watts said.

The future of Chicago’s tutoring program for the 2005-06 school year remains unclear. Unless regulations change, or the Chicago district meets state benchmarks, the district could not serve as a provider of tutoring. Some question whether private vendors are able to serve all eligible children.

Clarity Evolving

For states and districts, understanding the “supplemental educational services” portion of the No Child Left Behind law is still a work in progress.

In a Jan. 28 letter, the federal Department of Education informed the Philadelphia district that it must make its “intermediate unit”—a separate legal entity of the district that provides tutoring and other education-support services—more independent if it is to continue serving as a provider of tutoring to 2,400 students under the law.

The Education Department has tried to clarify SES implementation issues in a series of guidance letters. One, issued to states on Dec. 28, caused confusion in at least one state, however.

The letter from Raymond Simon, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, and Nina S. Rees, the deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement, tried to clarify several aspects of implementing supplemental services. It emphasized that states should notify districts of their “adequate yearly progress” status under the law by the beginning of a school year, and ensure that districts failing to improve enough do not serve as tutoring providers.

The letter also addressed states’ and districts’ respective authority over SES, saying districts may not impose requirements on tutoring companies’ program design beyond those set by the state.

The state may set such requirements, the letter said, including “parameters regarding the hourly fee a provider charges,” taking into account the company’s instructor-student ratio, the number of sessions, and the quality of its staff. The goal in setting such parameters, it said, would be to “help ensure that providers’ charges for services are appropriate.”

That guidance prompted one state to take action that got it into hot water with the Education Department. The Colorado education department e-mailed its approved tutoring providers last month to solicit input on a pricing structure of $20 an hour, a pupil-teacher ratio of 6-to-1, and a minimum of 45 hours of instruction.

Steven Pines, the executive director of the Potomac, Md.-based Education Industry Association, whose members include private tutoring providers, said states shouldn’t have interpreted the Dec. 28 letter as authority to impose a “one size fits all” approach on providers.

One angry Colorado provider fired back a response, which he copied to the governor and the federal Education Department. In no time, federal officials were on the phone to Colorado.

“Within an hour or two, we got a call saying, ‘You must cease and desist; don’t put any parameters in your [requests for proposals]; it’s a free market; you misunderstood our letter,’ ” said Patrick Chapman, the Colorado education department’s director of consolidated federal programs.

In a statement last week, Ms. Rees said the federal department plans to issue additional guidance to states, “further elaborating our intent” in the December letter.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Chicago, Ed. Dept. Settle Tutoring Dispute


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