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Lawmakers, education leaders spar over embattled tutoring program

Legislation proposed in Annapolis could hurt state's NCLB waiver application, education leaders say

By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

8:33 PM EDT, March 29, 2012

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State education leaders say proposed legislation that would force local school systems to continue funding a federal tutoring program could derail their efforts to gain relief from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Lawmakers are debating two bills introduced in the House of Delegates and the Senate dealing with Supplemental Educational Services, a federally mandated program that provides thousands of the state's poorest and lowest-performing students with free tutoring services by nonprofit and private vendors.

The program came under fire recently after an Abell Foundation report that found the companies operated with little scrutiny and accountability and used questionable practices in recruiting parents to sign up their children.

The companies set their rates and are paid based on how many children are enrolled in their programs. A Baltimore Sun article last year noted that in one instance, a provider offered a laptop to a city parent if she signed up her five students.

With the support of every district in the state, the Maryland State Department of Education is seeking to make the program optional for local school districts in its NCLB waiver application to the U.S. Department of Education. But the state's efforts are running up against aggressive lobbying from the tutoring companies that began at the state agency and has since moved to Annapolis.

The federal government is offering waivers from some of the requirements of No Child Left Behind, which has labeled many schools as failing.

Education leaders around the state denounced the legislation in Annapolis, saying the tutoring services have yet to prove to have any effect on student achievement, despite tying up tens of millions of dollars in federal funds in the last decade.

"Those bills are terrible," said Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso. "SES has no accountability. Some providers are great, and those we partner with in other ways. Many are not and get to sign up parents with impunity. It ties up huge amounts of money that the schools have no say over."

The bills are being sponsored by Del. Keiffer Mitchell and Sen. Catherine Pugh, both Baltimore Democrats.

"We know there are issues with the program, and we're trying to address those," said Mitchell, who said he benefited from tutoring for his dyslexia when he was a student. "But we also know that tutoring works. And we're dealing with 8,000 minority, poor students statewide [last year] — four of the schools are in my district — who don't have access to tutoring like their middle-class" peers.

The city has the most students enrolled in SES — Baltimore students account for about 6,000 of the 6,400 students in the state enrolled this year — and has spent more than $60 million in federal money on the program in the past decade. The district has set aside $7 million for the program this year, and the law requires districts to return SES funds that aren't used.

The Abell Foundation report documented problems with some of the programs in Baltimore City, including the fact that providers submit self-evaluations to prove their effectiveness. In response, the tutoring companies defended their programs, saying the shortcomings of some companies shouldn't compromise the entire SES program.

Currently, NCLB requires districts to allocate 20 percent of federal Title I dollars to the SES program, and it has loose regulations on how the state and local districts can monitor the progress of the tutoring. The program is extended only to the lowest-performing schools.

The bills would require districts to earmark 15 percent of their federal Title I money for the program, and it would extend the program to every district in the state.

Baltimore County and Prince George's County superintendents echoed Alonso's sentiments.

Maryland's waiver application, currently under review by the U.S. Department of Education, would allow districts to choose and fund the tutoring providers that they believe are most effective. Other states, like Illinois and Delaware, have submitted waiver applications and proposed eliminating the program altogether.

Interim State Superintendent Bernard J. Sadusky said that making SES optional was critical to the state's application, which would be weakened by continual revisions. He said it also was unclear whether a state mandate could supersede federal requirements.

"We don't want to take anything away from the children," he said. "Our waiver is about closing the achievement gap, and if these programs were effective, we haven't seen it. And those that are effective, the local districts will retain. But our superintendents have said that they want that [choice]."

As the U.S. Department of Education has sought to reauthorize the federal No Child Left Behind Act, created under the George W. Bush administration in 2001, tutoring companies have organized a national campaign to keep SES a mandate.

And education advocates said they are concerned that campaign has grown legs in Maryland.

"Struggling students need high-quality tutoring, after-school programs and summer school," said Bebe Verdery, director of the Education Reform Project at the ACLU of Maryland. "The Bush-era experiment that enriches private tutoring companies without having to prove that children are benefiting should be abolished, not expanded, by this proposed state law."

The largest national campaign, called "Tutor Our Children," has been active in Maryland and other states where waivers from NCLB are being pursued.

Matthew Fields, co-founder and president of Rocket Learning Inc., which operates programs that have posted academic gains in Baltimore City as well as Prince George's and Baltimore counties, said his company joined the campaign because he believes the program gives a voice and a choice to low-income parents. He said that was evident from parent testimony at the bill hearings.

"We think that that kind of program should not be only maintained but improved," Fields said. "If we all agree that tutoring is not a bad thing, certainly getting access to the kids who attend the schools that have been habitually underperforming is something that I find hard to believe that people would oppose."

erica.green@baltsun.com