Federal

Districts Spar With Ed. Dept. Over Tutoring

By Karla Scoon Reid — November 02, 2004 5 min read
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In Illinois and Massachusetts, state education officials are appealing to the U.S. Department of Education for exceptions to allow the Chicago and Boston school systems to provide free tutoring for their students.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Title I schools that fail to reach state goals for making adequate yearly progress must offer such tutoring to students from poor families. But districts that miss their state’s academic benchmarks are barred from using federal money to provide those supplemental educational services and must leave the tutoring to others—mainly private companies.

Although preliminary data show that Chicago’s schools have made some academic gains, the district could be identified as “in need of improvement” for failing to meet state goals for a second year. The state education agency has not issued final data.

So Chicago started its tutoring program this month, serving roughly 41,000 of the almost 77,000 students who signed up for academic help. About 201,000 of Chicago’s 434,000 students are eligible for tutoring.

That move has put Chicago in a standoff with the federal Education Department, which is expected to formally notify the district that it can’t provide tutoring if it indeed fails to meet state standards. But officials with the Illinois education department are pleading the district’s case—along with those of 10 other school systems that are tutoring students.

“If they can no longer be SES providers, it will be very harmful to students,” said Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Meanwhile, the 63,000-student Boston district is enrolling students for its tutoring program, which will begin Nov. 15. The Massachusetts education department is appealing to federal officials to allow the program because the district met its test-score goals, but missed the mark for attendance—92 percent—by two-tenths of a percent. The district tutored about 2,700 students last year.

Federal Guidelines

Regardless of a district’s circumstance, Nina Shokraii Rees, the deputy undersecretary in charge of the federal Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement, stressed during a September interview that the law’s guidelines are unambiguous. School systems that don’t make the grade can’t run tutoring programs using federal money, she said. (“District-Run Tutoring Classes in Jeopardy,” Sept. 29, 2004.)

Ms. Rees, who was unavailable for further comment last week, was expected to send a letter to Chicago officials shortly, reminding them of the law’s guidelines. Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the federal department, said in an e-mail last month that all states would be sent reminders about school districts’ eligibility for tutoring based on the provisions.

Some observers question the federal Education Department’s motives in prohibiting districts in need of improvement from tutoring.

Tilting Field?

They point to the federal guidelines requiring districts to tutor pupils who have disabilities or are learning English if private providers can’t meet such students’ needs. For many districts, the academic performance of those same groups of students often lands them in “needs improvement” status.

Nancy Van Meter, a specialist on privatization for the American Federation of Teachers, said the federal government gives private companies license to serve students who potentially are more profitable to tutor.

“It’s another example of a broader approach by the Bush administration to tilt the playing field in favor of privatization,” she contended.

Added Joel Packer, who tracks policy for the National Education Association: “The [federal] Department of Education has said time and again that these are not failing schools. These are not failing school districts. No Child Left Behind just says you need improvement. Now, it seems to be that they’re trying to have it both ways.”

Chicago school officials are frustrated by what they say is a double standard in the federal guidelines.

Xavier E. Botana, the director of No Child Left Behind Act accountability for the district, said Chicago students made “tremendous” academic gains in the past year. He attributed that progress to public school teachers who, in turn, are often the people hired by private tutoring companies.

If Chicago must halt its tutoring program, Mr. Botana said, the higher costs charged by private companies would mean that roughly 23,000 fewer students could be served. The average cost for district tutoring is $400 per student, compared with the $1,200 charged by private providers.

Platform Learning, a New York City-based company, is tutoring more than 13,500 Chicago students. Gene Wade, the company’s chief executive officer, said that Platform Learning could expand to serve more students, but that it would take up to two months to hire and train more teachers.

Meanwhile, some districts that are prohibited under the same rules from tutoring students are finding different strategies to help them.

In Philadelphia, the city’s Intermediate Unit—one of 29 education collaboratives in Pennsylvania—is an approved tutoring provider. The unit is a separate governmental entity with its own staff, but the Philadelphia district is its only member and manages the unit.

At least two private tutoring providers have appealed the state’s approval of the unit as a tutoring provider to the federal Education Department. Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the 190,000-student district, said it sought a cost-effective way to serve more students.

In the Seminole County, Fla., school district, four schools that met achievement goals have formed the Alliance for Academic Achievement, which in turn earned the state’s approval to offer tutoring. The 66,000-student district, as a whole, failed to make adequate yearly progress and expects that students in 12 schools could become eligible for free tutoring next school year.

Marjorie C. Murray, the director of special projects for the Sanford-based district, said the alliance would hire district teachers for one-on-one tutoring at the schools. Other Florida districts are considering forming similar tutoring alliances.

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