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Federal Opinion

‘Supplemental Services’: Theory vs. Practice

By Jeffrey H. Cohen — May 23, 2006 8 min read
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— Steve Dininno

Graphic by Steve Dininno

In theory, the rationale and benefits of supplemental educational services under the federal No Child Left Behind Act seem straightforward. The law requires school districts with at least one Title I school that has consistently missed its “adequate yearly progress” objectives to set aside an amount equal to 20 percent of the district’s Title I allocation. The set-aside must be used to fund two forms of immediate support for students who attend schools judged “in need of improvement”: transportation to a new school, and reimbursement for tutoring provided by a state-approved supplemental-services provider.

The Supplemental Educational Services program, or SES, represents a national commitment to providing academic help for families who cannot afford to purchase such assistance on their own. It reflects the following logic: If a school cannot satisfy its state-established levels of academic proficiency, we must offer immediate academic alternatives for low-income students who attend that school, while the school takes the necessary steps to get back on track.

In practice, however, SES has become bogged down in implementation challenges and district and provider squabbles that jeopardize the program’s ultimate value. It comes as no surprise that money is at the root of most SES implementation problems. And there is a lot of money at stake—potentially 20 percent of Title I funding, or more than $2.5 billion. The funding construct for SES has created a dysfunctional relationship between providers and districts that is thwarting the original intent of the program.

The funding set aside for SES has caused a range of predictable responses. It has created a cottage industry of more than 2,000 providers nationwide, including nonprofits, for-profits, faith-based organizations, and school districts. Many of these providers are leading educational services companies, but many others have little-to-no track record of successfully tutoring low-income children. As expected, the SES program has attracted its share of providers who see only an easy opportunity to feed at the federal trough, but it has also stimulated millions of dollars of investment in educational innovation and program development designed to address the needs of at-risk youths during the after-school hours.

On the district side, the program mandate has given rise to new thinking about after-school partnerships and the effectiveness of after-school programs. But it has also generated protectionism and paternalism among some school districts that, under the current system, loathe sharing any of their federal resources with third parties, especially for-profits. Consequently, some districts have established operating rules that make it very difficult for providers to serve students.

Some districts, for example, have made the registration process extremely difficult, thereby minimizing the number of parents who successfully enroll their children. In one large urban district, it is not enough that the parents of eligible students have registered their children on the district’s enrollment form. Before a student’s tutoring can begin, the district requires the parents and student to meet with the chosen provider to establish a learning plan for the child. The problem, of course, is that the provider cannot issue a learning plan for the child, because the provider has not had the opportunity to assess the child and diagnose his or her skill challenges. This extra layer of bureaucracy serves no educational purpose, but creates an extra hoop that only reduces participation in the program.

Some districts have forbidden providers to speak with school principals, and others have tried to limit or outright prohibit provider marketing. How are low-income families supposed to know about their program choices if providers are prohibited from informing them? These and myriad other implementation flaws have distorted the intent of SES, and make it impossible to determine the true value and impact of such programs.

Rather than blossoming into a free market of after-school services that invites low-income parents to become further engaged in their children’s education through the “purchase” of high-quality educational services, SES is dying a death of a thousand cuts. The defenders of the status quo, who seem threatened by any new ideas that upset the current one-way system of public education, have clearly taken aim at the supplemental-services program.

Yet there is hope. The following three modifications would change the landscape of SES and allow us to test whether a more collaborative approach to offering immediate relief for students in underperforming schools would yield the results contemplated at the creation of the program:

Remove the incentive to withhold the money. The money, or an attempt to control it, produces perverse behaviors. The requirement to set aside 20 percent of Title I funds creates an obvious and serious challenge for districts. Title I funding is the mother’s milk of urban school districts, and despite an average increase of more than 45 percent in the past five years, districts fight vigorously any attempt to divert these federal funds, regardless of the purpose.

School districts should have a say in who is approved to deliver programs in their facilities, and they should have a right to set expectations for such programs.

Today, a district that doesn’t spend its set-aside is free to deploy that money for other purposes. This creates an obvious incentive to establish barriers to SES implementation that diminish overall participation and use of funds. Removing the incentive to minimize spending on SES would allow us to refocus attention where it belongs: on maximizing the number of students who receive additional educational support. To achieve this goal, each district required to provide supplemental services could establish an SES escrow account, to be administered by a neutral, third-party trustee. The trustee’s mission would be to ensure that the funding was used only to pay for approved programs. If all eligible children had participated in a program, and there was still funding left over, those funds would revert to the general Title I fund for the district.

The establishment of an SES trustee would realign the incentive structure to match the legislative intent of the program. Districts would be motivated to embrace strong SES programs. If the programs work, and the schools start making adequate yearly progress, the set-aside goes away, the money is no longer encumbered, and the district regains control of those funds.

Ensure a greater role for districts in the process. By design, the supplemental-educational-services provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act exclude districts from most of the process and thereby place them in a naturally defensive posture. For SES programs to work—even after removing the fiscal incentive to limit participation—districts must be made full participants. They should have a legitimate role in the approval, provision, and quality-monitoring of supplemental services.

Long before the No Child Left Behind Act was written, our company provided supplemental instructional programs to schools and students all across the country. We were accountable first and foremost to the district that hired us, as well as the governing school board. There is no reason, in our view, for the district-provider relationship to change in the context of the SES program. School districts should have a say in who is approved to deliver programs in their facilities, and they should have a right to set expectations for such programs. If the goal is mutual success, and the incentives—educational and economic—of all the stakeholders are aligned, we should then trust districts to make good decisions with respect to services that will improve the academic performance of their students and schools.

The state should continue in its role as the ultimate authority, resolving disputes between providers and districts, monitoring fairness in the implementation process, and providing quality oversight to ensure that supplemental programs have the greatest potential to improve the academic achievement for participating students.

Establish a self-funding mechanism to support the administration of supplemental programs. One of the greatest shortcomings of the federal SES program is the lack of funding necessary to support its administration at the state and local levels. States and districts have been overwhelmed with the task of establishing a framework for delivering supplemental services in thousands of schools and communities.

Administration of SES should be self-funding. That is, the provider community, including district providers, should contribute equally (on a percentage basis) to an SES administrative fund. For example, every provider could contribute 1 percent of its SES revenue into a neutral administrative account, generating sufficient funding to support third-party quality monitors and trustees for managing each district’s set-aside. According to current SES spending estimates, such an administrative fee would generate over $5 million. As participation in the SES program increased, so would the size of the administrative fund.

While we would not typically advocate additional fees that draw resources away from instruction, we also know that we are spending substantially more than 1 percent of SES revenue in trying to overcome implementation barriers that will disappear if districts and providers are working together to maximize participation.

The Supplemental Educational Services program should not be about punishment and blame. It should not be about what hasn’t been done, but what could be done to address the needs of children who deserve an educational boost. Let’s fix the program so that everyone involved has a common interest. Then, we can discuss whether it is working.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Supplemental Services’: Theory vs. Practice

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