A last-ditch effort by South Florida lawmakers to keep millions of dollars flowing to private tutoring companies suffered a resounding defeat on Wednesday, giving Florida school districts control over $100 million in federal education money for the first time in a decade.
It happened when two Miami-Dade lawmakers tried to attach funding for subsidized tutoring into a fast-tracked bill that would expand online learning.
Their fellow senators cried foul, citing an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that showed criminals were profiting from the controversial program.
"What's happening this year is we're having students that are not being served," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. "I don't want to go and read some of the newspaper articles on my desk. Remember, there were rapists. There were child abusers. There were thieves. In my hometown, what we call hoodlums and thugs."
Last year, Montford supported a bill that had continued the tutoring through the end of this school year. The measure, which passed late in the session, continued a private tutoring initiative begun by the George W. Bush administration in 2001 - a program meant to help the poorest kids in the nation's worst schools.
In Florida, supplemental educational services, as it was known, gave rise to a booming for-profit industry that has fought fiercely the past two years to retain its funding.
In a series published in February, the Times revealed that lax state oversight allowed criminals to form companies and earn tax dollars tutoring needy kids. The newspaper also showed that companies repeatedly caught overbilling have continued to operate unchecked by state regulators.
On Wednesday, senators who supported subsidized tutoring - including Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay - argued that the proposed amendment would benefit underprivileged kids.
"What we're trying to do is keep it in law that the students have the option of tutoring services, both public and private," Garcia said. "At the end of the day, the ones who benefit from this are minority students."
But when the debate ended, the proposal lost out.
The vote capped weeks of backroom dealing and politicking over subsidized tutoring.
Proponents tried to tie funding to the budget before adding it Wednesday as a late amendment to the unrelated education bill.
State school superintendents hailed the decision as a major victory in a years-long struggle for more control over federal funding.
"We're committed to helping our most-at risk students, and I think this action will allow us to put the most amount of money toward the greatest needs that our children have," said Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "It really is a win for the children in the state of Florida, the children who have the greatest need."