First of two parts
When Yolanda Axson wasn't watching, a pot of hot water spilled into a crib at her day care in Orlando, scalding a 4-month-old boy.
She served probation for felony child neglect and then, barred from child care, found a less regulated line of work. She started a company to earn tax dollars tutoring poor kids in Florida's failing schools.
When state officials saw Axson's name on an application for the government tutoring program, they didn't hesitate. They stamped their approval, and her business, Busy BEE Services, went to work tutoring Florida's neediest children.
The cost to taxpayers per student? At least $60 an hour.
Axson's case points to a larger problem with mandated tutoring in Florida: The program pays public money to people with criminal records, and to cheaters and profiteers who operate virtually unchecked by state regulators.
In a three-month investigation, the Tampa Bay Times examined invoice records from 59 school districts, conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of complaint reports, audits and other documents, and found:
• Florida school districts paid at least $7 million last year to tutoring companies run by people with criminal records. Among those who have headed state-approved tutoring firms are a rapist, thieves and drug users.
• In more than 40 cases across the state, tutoring companies have faked student sign-up sheets or billed for tutoring that never happened. Companies that overcharged for tutoring earned $7 million last year alone.
• The program is riddled with conflicts of interest. In one county last year, more than 100 teachers moonlighted as tutors of their own students, flouting state ethics rules by positioning themselves to steer kids toward their secondary employers. Parents have billed for tutoring their own children and the head of a small North Florida school system ran a tutoring company that did business with neighboring school districts.
• Dozens of tutoring firms have broken federal rules by luring impoverished kids to sign up with promises of bicycles, gift cards and computers. Others have sent school administrators on golf outings or sponsored retreats for district officials who administer tutoring contracts.
Despite uncovering millions of dollars in potential fraud and documenting flagrant violations, school districts almost never forward cases to law enforcement.
And state education officials charged with policing the program are missing chances to cut back on fraud and waste.
Florida's Department of Education doesn't screen backgrounds of the people who profit from subsidized tutoring, and it seldom cracks down on companies accused of improper billing, illegal marketing and low-quality tutoring.
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Overwhelmingly, the state has allowed these companies to continue earning tax dollars year after year.
After nearly a decade, Florida last year won a waiver from the federal law that requires private tutoring. The state was set to shut down the program when lobbyists for the tutoring industry stepped in. They convinced state lawmakers to keep the money flowing.
Florida has spent $192 million on private tutoring firms in the past two years.
The companies are paid at a dramatically higher rate than conventional public schools. In the 2009-10 school year, the most recent period for which numbers are available, the state spent $9,981 per student — about $11 an hour. Florida spent $58 an hour, more than five times as much, on private tutoring.
Florida schools officials say the money could have paid for extended school days or extra instruction in high-poverty schools.
Tutoring companies, many of which meet high standards and offer quality instruction, say they provide a needed service.
But researchers disagree over whether government-funded tutoring is worth the money. Studies are inconclusive or contradictory.
The debate often takes on political undertones, with Republicans in favor of subsidized tutoring — known in education jargon as supplemental educational services — and Democrats against it.
In May, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in, telling a group of Florida businesspeople that, when it comes to subsidized tutoring firms, "there never has been accountability for results."
A new industry
The George W. Bush administration kicked off a gold rush in 2001 when, as part of its landmark education reform, No Child Left Behind, it required states to spend hundreds of millions of federal dollars on private tutoring for poor children.
The law — adopted with bipartisan support — forced districts to hire tutors at high-poverty schools that failed to improve test scores two years in a row.
To pay for it, districts were to tap Title I money, federal funds set aside for elevating impoverished kids.
A new industry was born.
Hundreds of companies were formed in Florida alone. The bulk of them were for-profit. Each year more companies lined up, lured by the promise of per-child fees that averaged about $60 an hour.
With so much money at stake, providers have offered children bicycles, laptops and other prizes for signing up. They have followed kids from bus stops and mobbed parents in school parking lots.
In Miami-Dade County, a company sent a high school's administrators on a four-day golf outing while seeking to lease more tutoring space from the administrators, a district investigation found.
"I've had a provider tell me that they see children as individual income increments," said Peggy Hildebrand, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Volusia County schools. "I had another provider tell me that NCLB stands for 'No Cash Left Behind.'"
A Times analysis of district billing data — the first of its kind in Florida — showed that 20 companies earned $1 million or more last year.
The top five earners collected a combined $20 million. The No. 1 tutoring business — founded by an Orlando businessman who formerly worked in sales and marketing for Miller Brewing Co. — collected more than $6 million.
Although federal law gave Florida power to regulate tutoring companies, it didn't hold owners and employees of the companies to the same high standards as teachers. Tutors hired by private firms don't need a college degree. Some companies recruit through Craigslist.
And though instructors must pass criminal background checks to work with children, the state requires no screening for owners and operators of tutoring companies.
As a result, the industry remains open to people like Axson.
Record no obstacle
Axson was running a day care in Orlando in 1999 when she put a 13-year-old girl in charge of three babies at once. A crockpot of hot water spilled on an infant boy, badly burning him, and Axson tried to cover it up, according to the state attorney's office.
Prosecutors charged her with felony child neglect and her mother, Beulah Wiggins, with a misdemeanor child labor law violation.
The case against Wiggins was dismissed, but Axson pleaded no contest in 2001. A judge withheld a formal finding of guilt and sentenced Axson to 10 years probation, during which she was banned from working with children and even from babysitting.
Under Florida law, her plea makes her ineligible to work in child care. She can't own or operate a day care center.
But in 2009 she registered to do business as Busy BEE Services and became a state-approved tutoring vendor.
Last year, her business collected more than $95,000 tutoring students in Orange County schools.
Neither Axson, 42, nor a company representative could be reached for comment, despite repeated phone calls and emails.
Axson's case isn't an isolated example, the Times found.
The newspaper used corporate records to identify more than 1,100 officers and directors of the 456 tutoring companies approved in Florida last school year. Comparing that list with records of criminal convictions and arrests uncovered at least 36 companies headed by people with criminal records.
In 24 cases, they pleaded guilty or no contest to charges ranging from misdemeanor domestic battery and public lewdness to grand theft and rape. In the others, charges were downgraded or dropped after the defendants made deals with prosecutors.
State laws meant to protect children would bar many of these people from working in a day care business. But those laws don't apply to government-funded tutoring companies, whose officers and directors are not screened.
Ernest R. Joe Jr. was in prison for raping a woman at gunpoint in front of her kids when he became a director of Kids World Enrichment Center Inc.
That didn't stop regulators from approving the company as a tutoring vendor in 2009.
Founded by Joe's mother, Carolynne Mather, in Lakeland, the company has earned more than $119,000 in the past two years tutoring children in Hillsborough and Polk counties.
In January, Mather told the Times she included Joe, now 42, in corporate paperwork because she listed family members as directors of her company. She stressed that Joe, released from prison last year and now a registered sex offender, was not involved with her business.
The company still is tutoring in Florida schools. Joe remained a director until June.
Dawud Brown, 34, pleaded guilty in 2008 to two counts of felony check fraud but skipped out on his probation.
He was listed as a fugitive when he became a director of Aspire Innovative Learning Inc., a Clearwater nonprofit that earned more than $33,000 last year from Pinellas County schools. Brown couldn't be reached for comment. Calls to his company's phone number during a two-week period were met with a busy signal. A company representative didn't respond to emails.
This year, Brown's company is tutoring again. He still is a wanted man.
Education officials across the state said these cases alarmed them.
"The vetting process is not as good as it should be. We need to tighten it up," said T. Willard Fair, former chairman of the state Board of Education and an outspoken advocate for subsidized tutoring. "There can be no acceptable rationale for not doing it. We cannot give the impression that anything goes in this process."
After companies win state approval as tutoring contractors, there's little to stop them from ripping off school districts.
In 2009, Erika Robinson's nonprofit was making about $1 million a year tutoring at a handful of Miami-Dade County schools. As head of the business, Robinson paid herself more than $186,000 a year, district investigators later would find.
Her success had nothing to do with quality tutoring, the investigators alleged in an arrest affidavit filed in 2011.
Instead, they said, Robinson, 36, ran a brazen fraud scheme, filing suspicious enrollment papers and bilking the school district out of more than $130,000. Robinson has pleaded not guilty. Her case is pending in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
Hers wasn't the only company accused of turning in suspect forms or inflated invoices.
Records kept by the Education Department and school districts across Florida chronicle widespread problems. But no regulator has examined those records to look for bad actors.
A Times review of audits, contract documents and written complaints filed since 2010 found at least 40 cases statewide in which companies were accused of faking or altering enrollment forms or billing for tutoring that didn't happen. Only two of those cases led to criminal charges.
In Broward County, employees of Touchdown Learning forged student signatures and filed invoices for students they never tutored, schools administrators charged.
In Hernando County last spring, JFK Tutoring sent its employees instructions to falsify attendance records and bill for lessons that never happened, the district said.
In Miami-Dade County last year, one company faked enrollment forms that were supposed to be impossible to forge, tracking down the district's supplier of a special paper and hiring a designer to fake the district's logo, officials said.
A Touchdown representative couldn't be reached. JFK officials denied the allegation.
In 2011, in a spot check of five counties, including Hillsborough, the state Education Department flagged "invoice errors" made by 10 of 21 companies.
"We have had providers do all kinds of things," said Diana Holden, whose office oversees tutoring contracts for Collier County schools. "We've been billed for hours that never occurred, and we find out when the parents call us and ask when tutoring is going to start, and we've already paid for 10 or 15 hours of tutoring."
Parents sometimes call to complain their child never was tutored, but they later change their story. "We believe that in some of those cases, the provider might have contacted the parent and offered them something," said Bernadette Montgomery, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Miami-Dade schools.
Despite repeated problems, Florida school administrators say they often give tutoring companies the benefit of the doubt, treating billing errors as honest mistakes.
"It's amazing how many people can't count minutes," said Eugenia Gordon, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Bay County schools.
Districts also have struggled to police conflicts of interest. In Palm Beach County last year, an audit found that one in three teachers who tutored on the side was earning money from students in their own classrooms. That's a conflict, according to a 2004 opinion by the Florida Commission on Ethics, because it positions teachers to use a public job for private gain.
In Miami-Dade County, tutoring companies have relied on teacher influence to drive enrollment, School Board member Raquel Regalado said.
The businesses enlist the help of principals, who recruit their favorite teachers to work for the companies, Regalado said. "Then the teachers were going and telling the parents, 'You have to put this kid in tutoring,'" Regalado said.
In Lafayette County, in northern Florida, it was the schools superintendent who had close ties to a tutoring company.
While serving as the elected head of the district, Thomas Lashley ran the region's only Sylvan Learning Centers. In 2011, he valued the for-profit company at $800,000, according to financial disclosure forms. Lashley never sought business with his district, Lafayette schools officials said, but his company accepted more than $118,000 last year to tutor children in neighboring schools.
In the opinion of Peter Butzin, head of the government accountability group Common Cause Florida, the arrangement created the appearance of a conflict of interest but probably didn't break any rules.
Lashley left office last year. He couldn't be reached for comment.
Every year, the state Education Department misses chances to crack down on troubled tutoring firms.
The agency keeps files documenting problems, including dozens of formal complaints and letters from school districts that outline serious misdeeds.
Yet regulators have done little with the information. They can't even locate written complaints gathered during the tutoring program's first six years in Florida.
The result has been to stick districts with the same questionable companies year after year.
Although the Education Department grades companies on a scale of excellent to unsatisfactory, the ranking largely depends on tests administered by tutoring companies to chart student progress.
The state-assigned grades don't reflect allegations of suspicious paperwork, overbilling, shoddy tutoring or other misdeeds. Troubled companies often get good grades and are brought back to seek more government money.
The state can ban a tutoring company for two years when "the matter is of such magnitude that it cannot be addressed by the school district," state Board of Education rules say. But the Education Department has rarely taken advantage.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education didn't respond to specific questions about why the state hasn't barred more companies for bad behavior. Cheryl Etters noted that districts have the right to cancel contracts with problem providers.
Yet state rules force districts to do business with every approved tutoring company that expresses an interest. If a company violates its district contract, the school system can fire the company for the remainder of the year.
But if the company keeps its state approval, it's back the next year for more business with the district. Schools officials say they contract every year with companies they know to have serious problems.
"We all deal with the same kind of issues," said Collier County's Holden, "which is what's so frustrating, because we can all compare notes, and we're all seeing the same things from the same providers year after year."
In a letter last February, Holden accused Miami-based A+ Educational Mapping of placing kids with unscreened tutors, filing questionable invoices, employing a manager who couldn't pass a background check and using tutoring materials that apparently were taken from another company.
"Such conduct not only constitutes a contract violation but also potentially puts students at risk of harm," Holden wrote.
The state got a copy of the letter, then approved the company again to work with kids — awarding it a ranking of "excellent."
The company's owner, Schiller Jerome, told the Times that the district's allegations were false. He said his firm was allowed to finish out the year in Collier County and noted that A+ Educational is back tutoring there this year. "And our company now has the most students," he said.
Lax oversight means tutoring firms can keep earning tax dollars even when they rack up complaints. Florida school districts have ended contracts with Computer Ed at least 12 times in the past two years, according to the state Education Department. Run by Michael Bartley, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of fleeing police in Michigan in 2007, the company also was the subject of at least six written complaints.
One came from a former tutor who said Computer Ed sent her to work before she passed a background check, then told her to falsify records to cover it up. Another tutor accused the company of altering attendance forms before submitting bills to Leon County schools.
Bartley denied all allegations of wrongdoing and defended his company's record, saying it often ended contracts with districts on its own terms.
The Education Department has approved Computer Ed as a government contractor every year it has applied, including this one. Last school year, Computer Ed earned more than $53,000 tutoring in Hillsborough, Pinellas and two other counties.
A lobbying win
Last year, as the legislative session drew to a close, funding for the tutoring program was in jeopardy. Florida earlier had requested freedom from No Child Left Behind, and the Obama administration had granted it. Requirements to hire private tutors no longer applied in Florida.
Then something unexpected happened. The state Legislature stepped in and restored the mandate.
How did this come about?
The answer traces to a special interest group that quietly has grown up around the government program, a group whose coffers have grown flush over the past decade with hundreds of millions of tax dollars:
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.