An expose in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune uncovered fraud, waste, and incompetence in the federal program for tutoring called Supplementary Educational Services. This program is part of No Child Left Behind, and it created the equivalent of a voucher program for after-school tutoring. Instead of encouraging schools to provide trained and certified teachers for the extra tutoring that low-performing students need, NCLB inspired the creation of a tutoring “industry.”
Ten years ago, when Congress created the tutoring program as part of No Child Left Behind, proponents believed the private market would accomplish what the public sector had failed to do.
For the first time, many parents would have a say in how their kids were educated. If they didn’t like the troubled school their children were attending, they could switch and districts would pay for transportation. If they wanted to take advantage of free tutoring, they would have plenty of options, and districts would foot the bill.
Entrepreneurs saw their opportunity and they took it. Thousands of brand-new businesses sprung up to take advantage of the federal dollars. For-profit online corporations leapt to get into this new and lucrative market. The money for SES comes out of the district’s Title I allocation. The cost of SES soared from $375 million in 2005-06 to $970 million last year. That is quite a tempting market.
In Minnesota, more than 80 tutoring services vie for $20 million in federal funds. The most aggressive of the tutoring companies are the online for-profit operators, who pitch their wares to unwary parents. According to the article, they charge as much as $90 an hour, as compared to the nonprofits, which charge as little as $5 an hour. A lucrative business for the corporation, not so profitable for the students. At those sky-high rates, the money runs out long before the student has gained much from the “tutoring.”
The SES program has never had adequate federal or state oversight. Numerous studies concluded that the SES tutoring was ineffective. “It wasted a lot of money and a lot of people’s time,” said Steven Ross, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University who led at least 15 state studies analyzing the program. “It was inadequately funded and developed. The policies don’t work. The whole concept was a bad turn. … It turned out to be very dysfunctional.”
The article documents numerous cases of fraud, occasionally leading to termination of a company’s contract. In several instances, tutoring companies billed for sessions that never happened; typically, they recruit aggressively, but deliver subpar services to students.
As an aside, the Romney education plan envisions turning over even more money and programs to the private sector, with minimal regulation.
Why do we keep wasting money on private vendors instead of providing our public schools with the resources they need to give students intensive tutoring? At least, we would have the assurance that the services were supplied by certified teachers rather than profit-seeking amateurs.