Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Lobbying preserved millions for Florida tutoring companies

Second of two parts

Every year for nearly a decade, private tutoring companies have made millions in Florida because the federal government required school districts to hire them.

That was in danger of changing last February, when the state won freedom from mandated private instruction for poor children in the state's worst schools.

But the tutoring industry wasn't letting go without a fight.

At the end of last year's legislative session, Florida became a key target as the tutoring lobby battled to retain funding.

The effort paid off in March, when state lawmakers quietly voted to keep the money flowing.

The moment marked a major victory for the tutoring industry, but, as the Tampa Bay Times reported on Sunday, it also ensured the survival of a program that is shot through with cheating, opportunism and fraud.

In tracing the new law from the agenda books of a special interest group to the pages of state statutes, the Times reviewed public records and interviewed legislators, lobbyists, education officials and advocates.

It found that the push to fund tutoring in Florida was part of a national campaign by the industry, an undertaking that failed in other places but succeeded in Tallahassee.

To save tutoring, the industry formed a nonprofit group that sold the effort as a civil rights struggle, spent $2.4 million on campaign contributions and lobbying fees and pushed legislation in states across the country.

In New York and Maryland, tutoring companies and their lobbyists battled fiercely for a law requiring funding and still made no headway.

In Florida, all it took was a phone call.

Rallying support

By the summer of 2010, midway through President Barack Obama's second year in office, tutoring companies that had thrived on government contracts knew they were in trouble.

Industry groups were expecting the administration to gut requirements for private tutoring, known as supplemental educational services, that made up a key part of President George W. Bush's education reform act, No Child Left Behind.

What the industry needed was a campaign to rally people who otherwise might not show support. The solution? Defend subsidized tutoring as a civil rights cause.

Steve Pines, head of the Education Industry Association, previewed the strategy in a PowerPoint presentation for tutoring companies in June 2010. His organization, a trade group for for-profit education businesses, would spend $1.5 million to help launch a nonprofit called Tutor Our Children.

The new organization would hire lobbyists, create a pro-tutoring website and encourage parents to flood public officials with support for mandated tutoring, all while positioning the campaign as a fight for civil rights.

It cultivated ties to the Urban League of Greater Miami and the United Farm Workers of America. In April 2011, it organized a panel discussion in Washington called "Waiving Away Education Civil Rights."

In October 2011, Tutor Our Children announced it had hired a spokeswoman, Stephanie Monroe, a Washington lobbyist who formerly served as assistant secretary of education for civil rights in the Bush administration.

About a week later, Monroe testified in a Senate hearing on the organization's behalf.

The same day, the group posted on its website a photo of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. It showed an inscription — a quote from King — that reads in part: "Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights."

The group's post, titled "The Struggle Continues," called the photograph a "humbling reminder of Tutor Our Children's mission."

Industry interests

But the group's founders weren't civil rights leaders. They were executives of top tutoring companies from around the country.

Among the board members was Chuck Young, co-founder of a Texas tutoring firm whose advisory board is chaired by Rod Paige — the U.S. education secretary who oversaw the rollout of No Child Left Behind — and whose Austin lobbyist last year was Sandy Kress, a key architect of the education reform law.

Also on the board of Tutor Our Children were top executives from Rocket Learning, the company that would spearhead industry lobbying in Tallahassee in 2012.

Together, Tutor Our Children and its founders have spent more than $2.4 million on lobbyists and campaign contributions since Obama was elected president, according to a Times analysis of data kept by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Today, the group still describes itself as an advocate for disadvantaged minorities.

Pines, the head of the Education Industry Association, told the Times in an interview last week, "If you look at it from a civil rights point of view, kids that benefit from SES tutoring are poor brown and black kids, for the most part. From a civil rights point of view, it kind of levels the playing field for struggling kids, no matter what their color or economic situation may be."

Pines later acknowledged that the EIA was protecting business interests when it formed Tutor Our Children — and using social justice arguments to bolster its cause.

"It's about allowing poor kids access to services that affluent kids have every day. So we sort of used a civil rights argument to make our case," Pines said. "I think it's fair for us to do that even though we're not a civil rights organization. I don't feel apologetic for that at all."

The fight in Florida

The lobbying didn't stop efforts across the country to roll back requirements of No Child Left Behind — including mandated tutoring.

In February 2012, Florida became one of the first states to win a waiver from the federal law's requirements, a development hailed by school administrators as a major step forward. No longer would the government so closely dictate how and where they spent their money.

All the arrangement needed was a state law that spelled out Florida's obligations under the deal.

The measure hit the agenda on a Thursday in the second-to-last week of the legislative session. The same day, the phone rang in the office of state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, head of the education subcommittee responsible for the bill.

On the line was Ron LaFace Jr., a prominent lobbyist representing Rocket Learning. He wanted to talk about subsidized tutoring.

The next day, Fresen added a requirement for "supplemental educational services" to his subcommittee's education bill. The move touched off a series of intense negotiating sessions. LaFace, who wouldn't comment for this story, was involved in all of them, according to lawmakers, lobbyists and aides who took part in the discussions.

At stake was roughly $100 million in federal education money.

And with only seven days before the session ended, there was little time to bargain.

The deal was hashed out by lobbyists in the Capitol Rotunda, an open area outside the House and Senate chambers where bills often are haggled over.

Involved in the talks were representatives of Hillsborough County schools and other large districts, the education department, the state superintendents association and the tutoring industry.

Then-Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson took part in at least one conversation. Robinson was adamant in the discussions that subsidized tutoring be funded, participants recalled.

The Times reached Robinson, who resigned in August amid a standardized testing controversy, but he declined to talk about his support for mandated tutoring. Instead he pointed to previous statements in favor of the program.

In the end, state Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat from Tallahassee who heads the state superintendents association, amended the bill to require money for tutoring companies — but not as much as the companies had gotten in the past.

"You have to deal with the hand you're dealt, and you try to make it the best for the children of Florida," Montford told the Times. "In a perfect world, we would hope that the school districts and the superintendents would have all of the control over the money, but that was not going to happen in this particular case."

Things happened too quickly for the measure to face much public debate.

"That is unconscionable as far as I'm concerned," said Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who opposed the late amendment but was powerless to stop it. "Any time something is added at the last minute, you don't get a full airing of it. And certainly it's open to questioning why it was added at the last minute when we were going over that bill for six to eight weeks."

Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill in April.

It ultimately meant more than $50 million set aside for subsidized tutoring this school year — money that many local educators say could be better spent elsewhere.

"I think it's a real shame," said Peggy Hildebrand, whose office oversees tutoring contracts for Volusia County schools. "Some people have become very wealthy, for a program that shows very little for success. It's heartbreaking."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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