Florida will crack down on tutoring contractors that defraud school districts and — for the first time — require criminal background checks for people who head tutoring firms under changes announced Tuesday by the state's top education official.
Education Commissioner Tony Bennett issued a statement outlining a series of steps his department will take to rein in fraud and ensure that tens of millions of dollars in education funding steered to private tutoring firms is better spent.
"We must hold the businesses and their leaders responsible for proving that the dollars directed to tutoring . . . produce the results intended," Bennett said. "Our students deserve nothing less."
The statement comes in response to a three-month investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, which found that lax state oversight has made subsidized tutoring a source of easy cash for criminals, cheaters and opportunists.
Besides screening owners of companies that offer the mandated instruction, the state also will work with lawmakers to cut the high costs of the program — the Times found that the average company charges more than $60 an hour per student — and create better ways to measure whether tutors are helping kids learn.
"We should know that our investment in our students is producing a return," Bennett said.
The commissioner also said the Education Department will go after fraud and seek to recoup "misused state resources."
The statement offered few details about how the Department of Education will accomplish these goals, and more specifics weren't available Tuesday.
The department office in charge of overseeing the tutoring program, known as supplemental educational services, has been affected in recent years by reorganizations and turnover.
Some companies have capitalized on weak oversight, the Times reported Sunday.
The newspaper found that a convicted rapist, a woman who served probation for child neglect and a fugitive were among the listed officers and directors of state-approved tutoring companies for poor kids in failing schools.
In at least 40 cases in the past few years, companies have faked enrollment forms or billed for tutoring that didn't happen. And the program is rife with conflicts of interest, the Times found.
Federal education law originally required school districts to hire private tutoring companies for poor students in schools that failed to improve test scores, but Florida got a waiver from that law last February.
A month later, state lawmakers acted to require tutoring as part of a state law, quietly voting to keep the money for tutoring companies flowing. This school year, Florida set aside at least $50 million for private tutors. The money comes from federal Title I funds that districts otherwise would be free to spend in high-poverty schools.
The state requirement was included at the urging of tutoring industry lobbyists and Bennett's predecessor, Gerard Robinson, who declined to discuss his support for the program.
H. Marlene O'Toole, chairwoman of the state House education committee, said she was ready to work with the Education Department to tighten oversight.
"It's very discouraging when we have good programs to help young people, and we find someone, usually an adult, who will take advantage of this," said O'Toole, R-Lady Lake.
District administrators across the state, including Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia, have decried the program, saying public schools could better spend the tax dollars by hiring more teachers or creating their own programs.
"I am encouraged by the commissioner's bold and immediate response to a very serious issue," Elia said in a statement Tuesday. "Everyone who receives public dollars needs to be held accountable. The state needs to put safeguards in place and put the focus back on meeting the needs of children."
Pinellas County schools superintendent Mike Grego put it bluntly Monday in an interview with the Times editorial board.
"Right now we're forced to do it," Grego said of hiring private tutoring firms. "I want out."
Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report.