No dollar left behind

Educational service business blossoms

By David Courtland 11/21/2007

A subtle tug-of-war between supporters and critics of No Child Left Behind is leaving parents out of the loop about supplemental educational services, the tutoring firms that purport to help improve student test scores so schools meet their NCLB targets.

“You have to keep in mind you’re in an area very opposed to NCLB,” said Monique Dollonne, an education consultant who is a proponent of the law that is the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s education policy (Dollonne also ran unsuccessfully in the Nov. 6 election for a seat on the Ventura Unified School District board). “Basically, what’s happening is a lot of people are after the money, and schools feel it’s being taken from them.”

Numerous companies offering “free tutoring” to students have sprung up to take advantage of NCLB, which requires school boards to make some of their federal funding available to pay for tutoring when schools fail to reach their targets for two years in a row.

“It’s a legal way of making a lot of money,” says Denis O’Leary, an Oxnard Elementary School District trustee, who is raising questions about the accountability of SES providers (O’Leary is also running for a seat on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in the 2008 elections). O’Leary’s school district has earmarked $864,249 of its federal funding for low-income students to cover tutoring for 720 grade schoolers.

Although he stops short of calling SES providers outright scams, O’Leary is concerned the companies are largely unregulated and only have to be on the California Department of Education’s list of providers to be granted access to the school district.

He said SES firms don’t have to conduct background checks on staff to make sure they are experienced or credentialed, and that all charge as much as they can per student.

“I haven’t seen one yet that hasn’t charged the maximum,” or almost $1,200 per student, O’Leary said. “If they charged less than the maximum, we’d have more kids provided for.”

O’Leary is also concerned about the lack of strict standards for an SES provider to qualify for the state list, for which the Department. of Education has a database on its Web site at www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/ti/ap/sspsearch.aspx. There are currently about 280 providers listed for California.

“As long as they’ve been approved by the state, the district cannot deny them access,” said O’Leary, who says 42 providers have asked Oxnard Elementary for access to parents, prompting the board to hold a fair for them to meet providers two months ago.

But although she acknowledges there are mom-and-pop tutoring operations that are “just in it for the money,” Dollonne points out many providers hire from teaching professionals and says the real problem is school districts don’t want parents to know tutoring is an option.

“The big problem right now is districts are very shy about SES and getting the word out about what SES is,” said Dollone, who notes money earmarked for tutoring that doesn’t get spent on providers by March goes back into a school district’s budget. Administrators who dislike NCLB would just as soon hang on to the money by not complying with the spirit of the law, she said.

“School districts are playing games, they start making deals with providers,” Dollonne said. Parents applying for tutoring are often told to let school officials fill out the section of forms that name the provider, she said.

Parents need to take the initiative and ask for information about providers, Dollonne said. She encourages them to look for providers that offer one-on-one tutoring and are flexible about working with students outside of their schools, especially at home.

“We’ve found that when kids are stuck in class with a tired, frustrated teacher who’s been working with 35 kids, it’s really rejuvenating for a student to study in a different environment,” Dollonne said.

As for greater accountability of SES providers, Jerry Cummings of the State Department. of Education said that’s coming, although the state is still working on a method to determine a provider’s effectiveness.

“The state’s role is to develop an evaluation system for SES providers to show if over a two-year period they’re not making progress,” says Cummings. “So far we haven’t developed that system, we’re still working on it.”

Cummings says the state is collecting test data from providers to help evaluate whether they are doing the job or not, but only has a year’s worth of information to work with so far.

“We need to have two years worth of data in order to remove any providers from the state approval list,” said Cummings, who says the second year of data should be available at the end of this school year, after the annual spring round of school tests.

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