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Ed. Dept. Allows Chicago to Provide NCLB Tutoring

By Catherine Gewertz — September 07, 2005 4 min read

The U.S. Department of Education will allow the Chicago school district to provide tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act, a reversal signaling more flexibility for districts in complying with the increasingly tough mandates of the law.

Margaret Spellings

Similar deals were said to be in the works to enable nine other large urban school districts to run their own tutoring programs, even if they have failed to meet state academic goals, a factor that normally bars them from being providers. As in Chicago’s arrangement, the other cities were expected to be permitted to serve as federally financed tutoring providers in exchange for agreeing to specified conditions.

The Sept. 1 announcement marked the second time in one week that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings enabled more flexibility around tutoring. She revealed on Aug. 25 that four districts in Virginia will be allowed to reverse the law’s normal procedure by offering tutoring to low-income students in struggling schools the year before they can transfer to higher-performing schools. (“NCLB Waiver Lets Virginia Offer Tutoring Before Choice,” current issue)

Appearing in Chicago last week, Ms. Spellings said the two “pilot” programs are aimed at getting more children the help they need. Studies have shown that only 10 percent to 20 percent of eligible children are served. The Chicago schools have agreed, among other things, to extend the enrollment window and submit to a third-party evaluation of the tutoring 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,” the secretary said in a prepared statement.

Arne Duncan, the district’s chief executive officer, hailed the agreement as a “huge win” for schoolchildren and “the most significant change in policy since the No Child Left Behind law was passed.”

Political Overtones?

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

The change of direction in Chicago marked a congenial turn in a dispute between the country’s third-largest district and federal education officials over whether a school district that has failed to meet its state’s academic targets may provide the tutoring, or “supplemental educational services,” the NCLB law requires. (“Chicago, Ed. Dept. Settle Tutoring Dispute,” Feb. 9, 2005)

Some observers heard predominantly political tones in the announcement.

“I believe the Bush administration is very worried about the political opposition to No Child Left Behind,” said Jack Jennings, a former top education aide to congressional Democrats and the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research and policy group. “I think the objective is to grant flexibility to defuse political opposition.”

Chicago’s situation has been closely watched because of its implications for districts nationwide. As states’ goals under the federal law get steeper annually, 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 districts had schools required to offer tutoring. One-quarter of those districts were themselves tutoring providers.

But the federal regulations that Ms. Spellings selectively waived forbid districts to use money set aside for the No Child Left Behind law 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 tutoring program again with a portion of the Title I money for disadvantaged schools that it must set aside to finance the tutoring and choice provisions of the federal law.

The 431,000-student district used city and other federal money last winter to continue its program, which served about half the 80,000 children enrolled in tutoring there. But it could not afford to keep up that financing scheme for 2005-06, so it would have stopped being a provider, said Elizabeth F. Swanson, who oversees tutoring programs for the district and 53 private vendors. More than 275,000 children are eligible for the services this year.

In an interview, Holly Kuzmich, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, said the new arrangements in Chicago are not so much a recognition of progress as a way to get tutoring to more children and afford parents more choices.

Other districts that had to stop providing tutoring when they fell short of academic goals said they never bothered to request flexibility because the Education Department had taken such a strong and public stance on Chicago. But given the change in the Windy City, some were reconsidering their decision.

“I felt like there was no possibility of a waiver,” said Susan Wright, the Title I director of the Clark County, Nev., schools. The district, which includes Las Vegas, ceased its own tutoring program last fall. “But if they are going to give [Chicago] a waiver, we need to have that opportunity also.”

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