Thousands of low-income Florida students who have received hundreds of millions of dollars in free, private tutoring may no longer have that option in the fall.
The reason: the Obama administration's decision on Thursday to free Florida and nine other states from strict requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 landmark law was championed by President George W. Bush and uses standardized testing to judge schools on the progress they make with each student.
President Barack Obama said Thursday that he was acting because Congress had failed to update the law despite widespread agreement it needed to be fixed.
"If you're willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we're going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards," he said.
With its waiver, Florida no longer has to have all students be proficient in reading and math by 2013-14 — a requirement considered impossible by many — and the state only has to follow its own accountability model based on school grades. Many questioned the dual systems in which a Florida school that received an A grade from the state for its academic performance also faced sanctions for failing to meet federal progress standards.
No Child also requires tutoring and school choice options for students in high-poverty schools that fall short of federal standards. Districts have to set aside 20 percent of their federal Title I dollars every year — money they get to help high-poverty schools — to pay for private tutors for low-income families who want them and to bus students who choose to attend higher-performing schools.
Jeff Eakins, federal programs director for Hillsborough schools, said the district could benefit from having more access to the $10 million it annually sets aside for tutoring and school choice.
"Especially in this era of school reform, districts need to have more flexibility," Eakins said. It might be able to offer support to more schools. Or it could change the type of services it provides to schools that need extra help.
In Florida, 74,299 students received tutoring services during the 2010-11 school year, according to the state. Hillsborough had 5,800 students in the tutoring program this year. Pasco had 1,916. Pinellas numbers were not available.
Leaders of the multibillion-dollar tutoring industry, which got a huge boost from No Child Left Behind, expect many districts will use the waiver to roll back the clock.
"The real story … is the loss to the kids who have been receiving almost a civil right," said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, which includes many tutoring companies. "For the last 10 years, they could get a lifeline — free, after-school tutoring — just like the wealthy kids in Florida get."
Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson said he has told superintendents he wants to find a way to keep tutoring alive in some way, while also making sure districts can spend the money as they consider most efficient and effective.
"We are going to find a creative way of utilizing that money," Robinson told reporters during a conference call. "Let's look at the 20 percent in a way that makes sense."
The tutoring has been especially controversial over the years.
Supporters pitched it as a way to help poor kids in struggling schools, and to empower parents who picked which state-approved tutoring companies were best for their kids. But critics saw a bid to privatize a piece of public education and worried about the quality of tutoring companies, which range from mom-and-pops to big corporations.
Debate continues to rage over whether the tutors are worth the cost. Many districts fork over more than $1,000 per student, for what is often 30 to 40 hours of tutoring. Last year alone, Florida school districts spent $97 million to meet the requirement.
District officials say they can spend the money better.
Pasco County schools reserve about $3 million in the annual set aside. Title I supervisor Elena Garcia said the district faced many difficult choices if the federal waiver had not been approved.
At least one school, Gulf Middle, had seen a large enough increase in low-income students to qualify it as a Title I school, Garcia said, meaning it would get a chunk of the district's Title I funds. If the 20 percent set-aside remained in place, services might have been lost to other schools, or perhaps a school with lower levels of poverty might have fallen off the district's Title I list.
"We have a lot more breathing room for including schools and maintaining services," said Garcia, who has already begun preparing her 2012-13 budget.
She also looked forward to making changes to the tutoring program, once freed of federal requirements.
Under existing rules, the tutoring offer is limited to students at Title I schools who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. With the waiver, the district could allow any student at such schools to sign up.
"Now we will be able to get it to the right kids, and be more exact in what we provide, depending on what the decisions are" at the state, Garcia said.
State officials have not specified exactly what restrictions they might try to place on the federal money.
The waiver "frees up tremendous resources for schools," said Cheryl Sattler, a Tallahassee-based Title I consultant for Florida school districts. "The question is, what is the state going to ask them to do with the money?"
The Associated Press contributed to this article. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow him on Twitter @jeffsolochek.