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Bridges4Kids LogoSchools' Tutor Program Must Change, U.S. Says
by Dale Mezzacappa, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2, 2005
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The Philadelphia School District must make changes to its after-school program by September to continue as an approved tutoring provider under the No Child Left Behind law, the U.S. Department of Education has ruled.

The legal decision is another salvo in the dispute between the federal department and big city school districts, which must divert millions in federal aid to outside tutors for low-income students in underachieving schools. In Philadelphia, 155 schools with 110,000 students fit that category, and about $20 million is at stake.

This part of the federal law is designed to expand parental options. But several urban districts, including Chicago, have complained that the tutoring is expensive and virtually unregulated and doesn't reach enough needy students. In Philadelphia, tutors get $1,800 a child.

School district CEO Paul Vallas has pursued policies designed to acquire most of the so-called supplemental educational services (SES) funds for his own programs, which he says can provide academic help at less cost to more needy students.

His policies prompted three private tutors to appeal to Washington after the state Department of Education approved the Philadelphia Intermediate Unit (IU) - a separate legal entity - as a provider that could compete with them to sign up children. Districts that meet federal improvement goals are barred from being tutors themselves.

In a 10-page answer to that appeal dated Friday, federal education officials said that the Intermediate Unit could continue as a provider, but must further separate itself legally from the school district. In addition, it must separate the services given to students eligible for the tutoring under the law from those given to other students in the extended day program. Extended day is at least an extra hour of math and reading instruction.

"They have to set up something separate and do a major overhaul of what they were doing," said Nina Rees, the U.S. assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. "It sounded as if they were using the SES money to fund extended day."

The federal department also said that the district must rephrase its informational letters to parents so that the IU's program isn't favored over private tutors.

"The district will have to treat [the Intermediate Unit] program the same way it treats everyone else," Rees said.

To another part of the complaint, the department said the district could require tutors to complete most of their work in time to have students ready for state tests in March.

Vallas described the decision as a victory for his approach, which has sought to get extra academic help after school to as many students as possible. More than 37,000 students are enrolled in extended day.

"They said we can continue the program until the end of spring semester, and then need to make changes," he said. "We have no problem with that."

The district sent 114,000 letters to parents in the 155 eligible city schools, but only about 8,100 families sought tutoring. Of those, a little more than half were deemed eligible, and more than half of those families chose the district's own program.

Philadelphia also has been criticized for limiting eligibility for the private tutoring to parents receiving public assistance; most other districts use eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch, a more generous standard that includes the working poor. That decision has not been legally challenged.

Leon Williams of Action Reading and Math in South Philadelphia, one of the providers that brought the appeal, said he doesn't think the decision was a total win for Vallas.

"I think what this means is that they don't have carte blanche to do what they want," he said.

The U.S. Department of Education forced Chicago to end its own tutoring program serving 40,000 students last month and outsource the services.

Chicago, which didn't set up a separate legal entity for its program, was able to continue the tutoring until June only after getting $1 million from the state and finding other money in its budget besides the federal aid it was supposed to set aside for the private tutors.


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