Florida school districts should not be paying teachers once to instruct students during the day and a second time to tutor some of the same students after hours. That is a clear conflict of interest, and federal and state officials should tighten the rules regarding contracting with for-profit tutoring companies. Even well-intentioned efforts to help students learn can create the appearance of favoritism and worse.
As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Michael LaForgia reported last Sunday, more than 100 public school employees or their immediate family members have formed private companies and are receiving government money for tutoring students. While most contract outside their home districts, some of their companies have received contracts from the school districts where they teach. The investigation found 1 in 4 of the tutoring companies tied to teachers has made money tutoring students from their own schools. Such situations can be rife with conflicts and create the impression that teachers with tutoring contracts have more influence — and clearly better pay — than their colleagues.
Consider the case of Alachua County principal Beth Le Clear and a for-profit tutoring company she controlled that tutored students in her district. As LaForgia reported, Le Clear promised to transfer ownership of the company to her sister after competitors complained. But public records suggest she still is heavily involved in the business, and she acknowledged she still has an ownership interest. Yet Alachua superintendent Dan Boyd inexplicably defends the arrangement even though students from Le Clear's own schools have been signed up by her company.
Publicly financed tutoring is big business, with some $100 million in play in Florida at a cost of up to $1,500 a child. There are 456 state-approved tutoring companies, including 83 run by certified educators and 30 run by educators that contract with their own districts. Those 83 companies connected to educators earn $8.5 million. There has been little oversight over this federal money that flows through school districts, and it was only this year that state legislators ended a requirement that districts participate in the program.
State law bans most public employees from contracting with their government employers. At the very least, Florida should ban educators and their immediate family members who operate for-profit tutoring companies from contracting with their own school districts. Principals and teachers should not be using their own schools and colleagues as farm teams to supply their for-profit companies with customers, no matter how well-intended they are about improving childhood learning. It's a system ripe for abuse, and it needs to stop.