Federal

District-Run Tutoring Classes in Jeopardy

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 01, 2004 3 min read
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School systems that fail to meet their states’ academic goals cannot provide free tutoring to students with federal money, a rule that is forcing some districts to place such programs on hold.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Title I schools that fall short of their states’ goals for adequate yearly progress for three years must offer free tutoring to students from poor families. School districts are required to set aside 20 percent of their Title I budgets to finance those supplemental services, and some have begun offering such programs themselves.

The Chicago school system is aggressively promoting its tutoring program, even though the district likely will be identified as “in need of improvement” for missing state benchmarks for a second year.

The Boston school district still hopes to earn state approval to offer tutoring, because the district failed to meet state standards largely on the basis of attendance figures, not test scores. The Columbus and Cleveland school systems pulled themselves from Ohio’s list of tutoring pro viders earlier this year. But with a list of 145 eligible providers, Ohio education officials don’t anticipate a shortage.

“The law is the law,” said Stephen L. Barr, the executive director of federal programs for the Ohio Department of Education. “That’s how we have to look at it.”

While the consequences of eliminating struggling districts as providers of supplemental education services are unclear, some observers believe the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines barring their participation exceed the 2½-year-old law’s intent.

“We think the regulation is arbitrary, overly restrictive, and inconsistent with the statute,” said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents urban districts.

Mr. Simering said that according to the law, the states approve tutoring providers based on their “record of effectiveness” in delivering services. He emphasized that districts that have failed to meet state targets for academic progress may be making substantial gains in reading and mathematics, making their tutoring programs effective tools to raise achievement.

Nina Shokraii Rees, the deputy undersecretary in charge of the federal Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement, said last week that the guidelines are explicit and leave no room for exceptions: Districts designated by their states as falling below standard aren’t eligible to run tutoring programs with the federal dollars set aside for that purpose. “If a school district is unable to raise student achievement with the amount of money it’s getting,” she said, “it’s not equipped to offer tutoring services after school.”

Some Exceptions

The guidelines do allow districts designated as needing improvement to provide tutoring for students who have disabilities or are English-language learners, if private providers can’t meet their needs. Once private companies have reached their capacity for serving interested families, districts can use any remaining federal money to fill the tutoring gap, Ms. Rees said. Districts also can offer tutoring to students by using other sources of money, she noted.

The 434,400-student Chicago district started notifying parents about tutoring opportunities in April, after receiving the go-ahead from both state and federal officials, Elizabeth F. Swanson, the district’s director of after-school and community school programs, said last week.

The district expects about 70,000 of the 201,000 students who are eligible for tutoring to sign up, with about 80 percent selecting the school system’s programs.

Ms. Rees contended that Chicago officials could have predicted that their district’s status as a tutoring provider was at risk, based on school-by-school test scores. The Education Department encouraged Chicago to sign students up for tutoring, she said, but was unaware that the district would offer most of those services.

Last year, Ms. Swanson said, Chicago officials were left scrambling in November to ramp up a district-run tutoring program to meet the needs of thousands of students who couldn’t get spots in programs run by private providers.

This year, the district wanted to enroll students early so that the program could start in October, roughly 20 weeks before state testing begins.

“When push comes to shove, we’re talking about children in desperate need of help,” Ms. Swanson said. “Should we just cross our fingers and wait? These children need these services. They need these services yesterday.

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