TALLAHASSEE — The fight over subsidized tutoring in the Florida Legislature has come down to a quiet confrontation set against an unlikely backdrop — a series of budget talks between the House and Senate.
As the session winds down, the fate of the controversial program is being haggled over in private because of a last-ditch effort to tie reforms to the state budget process.
On one side, the Florida House, backed by superintendents of the state's largest school systems, wants to end mandated tutoring for poor students and give districts control over the money.
On the other, a Senate plan, backed by the for-profit tutoring industry, aims to keep tax dollars flowing to private contractors but also adds as-yet-undefined accountability measures.
Both sides met Saturday morning but have yet to reach a deal.
The sticking point in the talks is whether school districts should have the option of hiring outside tutors for their most vulnerable students — or whether they should be required to.
Subsidized tutoring, or supplemental educational services, came under scrutiny in Florida following a Tampa Bay Times investigation published in February. In a series of stories, the newspaper showed that criminals were earning tax dollars running tutoring businesses and lax regulation had allowed rampant overbilling in the $100 million program.
State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who has supported more flexibility for school districts, pledged changes while leaders of districts statewide called for an end to the program, which was designed to help poor children in failing schools.
But so far this year, the Legislature's efforts at reform have flagged.
Even the plan now being pushed by the House initially got a cold reception.
Earlier this month, state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, unveiled the proposal as an amendment to an unrelated education bill, but the idea got no traction in the Senate.
The House proposal to stop mandating tutoring would grant school districts power over millions of federal education dollars.
Private tutoring firms have gotten a cut of that money at least for the past six years, when Florida came in line with a federal requirement to hire outside tutors.
State lawmakers passed a law to preserve the program last year, when the Obama administration granted Florida freedom from the federal requirements. The new law required districts to pay fewer federal dollars to tutoring companies, but still resulted in more than $50 million set aside statewide.
On its face, the Senate plan appears to call for even less money for tutoring next year. But the true financial impact remains unclear.
Under the current law, the tutoring companies' cut is subtracted from just a portion of all federal Title 1 money sent to a district. The Senate plan would subtract it from the total amount — a difference of millions of dollars in the state's largest districts.
Backers of the Senate plan say subsidized tutoring makes a difference for needy kids.
"I'd like to hold the line that there be money available to help those struggling kids outside of the school day," Senate President Don Gaetz said Saturday, dismissing criticism from opponents that the proposal was designed to benefit private companies.
Meanwhile, House members echoed concerns of superintendents statewide.
"Parents, teachers and administrators have said, 'Let us make the decisions for our district,' " Passidomo said. "For us to micromanage them, especially when there have been problems with (tutoring) providers, doesn't make sense."
Because the changes are being hashed out in back rooms as part of the budget, public input has been limited.
"It does feel like this is being pushed through at the end," said Hillsborough County Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who opposes requirements for subsidized tutoring. "Here we are on a Saturday afternoon, and the language is changing on something that is going to be millions of dollars spent on private companies, and we have no data at all that there are any results for the money being spent."