Sunday, January 21, 2018
Education

Troubled low-income tutoring program could see changes

TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, added an unexpected provision to her sweeping education accountability bill Thursday: a pitch to free Florida school districts from having to provide private tutoring services at low-income schools.

Under current law, Florida school districts must spend 15 percent of their federal funding for low-income students on private tutoring services.

Passidomo's proposal: let school systems spend those dollars on tutoring, or on other programs for low-income children instead.

"We feel that each school district is in the best position to determine and understand the needs of their students," Passidomo said Thursday, winning the support of her colleagues on the House Education Committee.

The sudden interest in subsidized tutoring follows a Tampa Bay Times investigation outlining serious problems with the $100 million government program.

Published in February, the newspaper's series revealed that a rapist, a child abuser and a fugitive were among those approved by Florida to head tutoring firms last school year. The stories showed that state regulators weren't tracking problem providers, which allowed criminals, cheaters and profiteers to cash in on tutoring at-risk kids.

The series also showed that state lawmakers, in the face of feverish lobbying, bowed last year to pressure from the tutoring industry, requiring school districts to continue paying for private tutoring despite an opportunity to do away with the troubled program for good.

Passidomo said her proposal would not "preclude a school district from contracting with any provider for after-school services."

"It does give school districts the flexibility to terminate a provider that they don't think is up to snuff," she said, noting that districts currently have no discretion over tutoring providers.

State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett supports the move.

"It will increase choices because it will set up a survival of the fittest," he said. "It will weed out bad providers and allow school districts to chose the best programs for their students."

In backing the measure, Bennett is taking the opposite stance of his predecessor, Gerard Robinson, who was adamant last year that tax dollars continue flowing to private tutoring firms. Robinson declined to discuss his support for subsidized tutoring when reached by the Times earlier this year.

Despite Bennett's position, the private tutoring industry is putting up a fight.

On Thursday, Matthew Fields, co-founder of Miami's Rocket Learning, called the tutoring services "a social justice issue."

"You are taking away an important decision that, under current law, resides with parents and giving it to school districts," he said.

Added Neal Kimball, whose Orlando-based tutoring company A+ Tutor U won more than $6.5 million in tutoring contracts last year, the most of any provider in the state: "It's companies like us and charter schools that are adding a little bit of that competitive element to keep the school districts honest with how they are doing their work."

But school districts are intent on shepherding the language into law. The provision is now part of HB 7027, which is headed for the House floor.

Joy Frank of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents thanked the House Education Committee five times for considering the amendment.

"This gives us the ability to ensure the services we provide to low-income students are quality services," she said.

Connie Milito, the chief government relations officer for the Hillsborough County school district, pointed out that most tutoring providers "do a great job." But she said the school system had concerns with several companies. "What this amendment will do, from the district's point of view, is give us the flexibility to live up to the accountability you're putting out there for us," she said.

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