In Texas, Tutoring Companies Made a Buck Off NCLB

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 provided millions in federal funding to states to spend on struggling students from low-income families. Schools were mandated to provide tutoring to students who needed it most, and that order came with funding. Now that the program has been closed in Texas since the state has been granted a general waiver from NCLB, some disturbing data about the use of tutoring funds has arisen.

The waiver from the 2001 law, among others things, gives districts more authority over underperforming schools, and the change will be "a blow against a once-bustling and virtually unchecked for-profit industry," writes Morgan Smith in The Texas Tribune.

Under the federal education law, low performing schools are required to set aside 20% of federal funding for economically disadvantaged students to pay for supplemental education services or tutoring in middle and high school.

The program was intended to give low-income parents equal opportunity to acquire private tutoring services for their children. School districts were given little control over which companies the parents selected — the companies only had to be on the state list.

In the last six years, Texas school districts have spent $180 million on tutoring services, primarily from private providers.

As the academic standards that schools had to meet under federal law ratcheted higher each year, the number of schools required to set aside money for tutoring grew — and so did their troubles with the private companies providing the services.

In 2009, school administrators began filing complaints against private companies for falsified invoices, overly aggressive student recruitment and questionable instructional methods. The schools doubted the academic benefit of tutoring programs and detailed the use of iPads, phones and laptops as incentives for students to enroll in the services.

The school administrators "described instances of company representatives paying students and teachers to recruit for their programs and showing up without permission — or criminal history background checks — on school property. One East Texas principal expressed alarm that the owner of a tutoring company working on campus was also listed on an adult entertainment website."

The companies, however, vigorously defended their practices and some even filed complaints with the Texas Education Agency.

The Edinburg district requested the agency to investigate one of the state's largest tutoring providers. The district reported a number of issues, including lacking evidence that certified teachers conducted tutoring sessions. Also, students told officials that they were allowed to keep a company-provided laptop and phone regardless of whether they completed their tutoring sessions.

In 2010, the Houston school district filed 13 complaints against the companies. The Dallas Independent School District identified potential issues with the invoices of 12 providers, and, "In all, $143,000 had gone to services that investigators said had not taken place. Later on, it found another $500,000 in falsely billed services."

Finally, the Texas Education Agency decided to take action against tutoring companies after receiving more than 75 formal complaints in four years.

The agency moved to bar some of the most egregious offenders — including two companies operating with fake tax identification numbers and one that did not certify that its employees had passed criminal background checks — from the list of approved providers, which until 2012 included a company using Scientology-based instruction.

In the last application cycle of tutoring companies, Texas Education Agency said they made some significant changes. The agency will now look for evidence of effectiveness and ask applicants to provide a baseline and goals for the year.

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