Criminals would be banned from running subsidized tutoring firms and state education officials would be required to track complaints and bar providers who cheat or commit fraud under a bill filed Tuesday in the state Senate.
The measure would increase oversight of Florida's troubled, $50 million government tutoring program, which requires school districts to hire private tutors for poor kids in failing schools.
State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, who sponsored the bill, said mandated tutoring is as much a magnet for fraud and waste as Medicare and Medicaid and that the education program should be policed more rigorously.
"There's always people who will find a way to make money off of the system inappropriately," said Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who heads the Senate's Children, Families and Elderly Affairs Committee. "I believe we should crack down on them, save the taxpayer money and make sure our children get the best education."
The bill comes in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that showed criminals, cheaters and opportunists were profiting amid lax oversight of the federally funded program. The newspaper found that a rapist, a child abuser and a fugitive were among those approved by Florida to head tutoring firms. It also found that state regulators weren't tracking complaints against providers and that districts almost never referred potential fraud cases to criminal investigators.
Besides mandating criminal background checks, the bill would require the state Department of Education to audit the program's spending every year, to create a uniform system for tracking and investigating complaints about tutoring companies and to bar problem providers. It would require that potential crimes be referred for prosecution.
Sobel said language addressing the tutoring program, known as supplemental educational services, is being added to a companion bill in the House. She said she's optimistic about the measure's chance of passing.
Senate President Don Gaetz, who appointed Sobel to her leadership position in November, supports the bill, a spokeswoman for his office said Wednesday.
"I think this definitely has wings to fly," Sobel said. "I don't know anybody who is supporting fraud."
Since the Times last month exposed widespread problems in the tutoring program, the state Department of Education has pledged better regulation of government tutoring contractors and outlined plans to recoup tax dollars lost to fraud and waste.
The U.S. Department of Education also has weighed in, calling the Times' findings "serious and troubling." A spokeswoman for the federal agency's inspector general, however, declined to say if it had begun a formal review of Florida's use of federal dollars.
Representatives of the tutoring industry have come out in favor of more scrutiny.
Matthew Mugo Fields — founder of Rocket Learning, the company behind a successful lobbying effort last year to preserve Florida's funding for subsidized tutoring — said he welcomed additional oversight.
"The majority of folks who are providing these services are people who are lifelong educators, who genuinely view this as an opportunity to help the neediest kids," Fields said. "Whenever there are these kinds of accountability issues, it undermines the viability of what I think is a critical program. So we're at the top of the list of people who want to make sure that there are only reputable folks doing this kind of work."