Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett moved quickly last week, promising to clean up a privatized tutoring scheme two days after the Tampa Bay Times disclosed how the arrangements had enriched criminals and cheats by millions of dollars with no proof it had helped students. But the real solution would be for the Florida Legislature to stop bowing to a disingenuous special interest and abolish the program, as the federal government agreed the state could do a year ago. Lawmakers should redirect the millions flowing to a corrupt, privatized education plan to the state's 67 public school districts that can best decide how to provide help to poor students.
The idea sounded innocuous enough a dozen years ago when it was included in President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law: Use public money to pay for private tutoring for poor students attending failing public schools. But as the Times' Michael LaForgia reported last week, the federally funded program in Florida has such lax regulation that it enables criminals, cheaters and profiteers to collect millions in taxpayer dollars without even proving they helped a single student learn. Cynically wrapping themselves in the same cloth as civil rights groups, tutoring firms have pushed their cause in Tallahassee and elsewhere. All the while they are collecting inflated payments far more lucrative than what public schools would have received for similar services.
State officials — including Mike Grego, who now is Pinellas schools superintendent — would have stopped the scheme through a federal waiver to No Child Left Behind requirements that the state was granted last year. But a powerful Republican lawmaker stepped in at the last minute to preserve subsidized tutoring.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who has long championed the privatization of public education, was the first to publicly insist money remain in the state budget for the tutoring program after talking with a lobbyist for one private provider. In the end, more than $50 million was set aside to pay for private tutors in 2012-13 over objections from school superintendents, the bemusement of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and without a single new accountability measure.
After the publication of the Times' investigation, Bennett announced Tuesday that starting immediately, tutoring operators will be required to undergo criminal background checks and will face new accountability to prove that their students are actually improving. Better late than never.
But the better route remains the one Fresen derailed a year ago: Let the federal funds for poor students flow straight to Florida's 67 school districts — that already are accountable for their spending — to decide the best way to serve them, which might still include private tutoring. Republican leaders in Tallahassee like to talk a lot about education accountability and local control, but they should practice what they preach.