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Firms will vie to tutor for Chicago

Tutoring companies that want to offer their federally paid programs in Chicago schools this fall must compete against one another in a screening process that providers say will ultimately limit services for struggling children.

Fifty-three companies are interested in a slice of the estimated $50 million set aside by the Chicago Public Schools for tutoring programs mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. About 230,000 low-income students in 400 schools will be eligible for the free service, which must be offered to students in schools that are not meeting state testing goals.

During a contentious meeting Friday, tutoring providers complained most about a new provision that asks companies to discount their per-pupil tutoring price for the privilege of setting up shop in city schools. Some companies accused the school system of trying to profit from a federal program aimed at giving parents choice and designed to be free of school interference.

The discount--estimated at $1,035 per pupil--reflects the benefits of free rent and utilities, overhead costs for janitors and security, and the convenience for students and tutors of having the program on site.

"The process that CPS has set up is neither equitable or reasonable," said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, which represents the interests of 800 private providers of tutoring and other education services. "This ... sets up a potential bidding war among providers as they try to price themselves into schools.

"The direct impact of this ill-conceived CPS policy will be fewer instructional hours and less choice for parents as they select quality providers. If I were a parent of a child [eligible for tutoring] in a Chicago school, I would be outraged."

The discount is one of six criteria to be considered by school officials when deciding which of the 53 companies will be given school space for their programs. This past year, parents chose among 28 tutoring companies, only a handful of which were not in school buildings. Attendance for the off-site programs suffered, with only 28 percent of enrolled students attending after-school sessions, compared with 70 percent attendance for those enrolled in programs in the schools.

Beth Swanson, the schools' director of after-school programs, said the discount is only a suggestion and none of the money will flow back into school system coffers. If prices are lower, more children will get free tutoring because the schools have only $50 million to spend, Swanson said.

Last year, about half of the 80,000 children receiving tutoring were enrolled in a program run by the public schools, but Chicago no longer qualifies as an approved provider because it is considered a "failing district" under the federal law.

Companies that choose to offer no discount or a much smaller one still could be chosen for the school-based programs, particularly if they shine on the other criteria, Swanson said. The school system also is looking at the companies' past performance, how many students and which areas of the city they can serve, and their plan for hiring tutors and substitutes.

"We don't want this to be a bidding war. We're trying to get as many kids as possible served," Swanson said. "Last year, we let everyone and their brother in, and it was tough to manage quality. Now there are 53 instead of 28 providers, so we had to figure out some way to manage this."

Swanson said the school system still hasn't determined how many companies will be allowed in the schools, but added that all 53 companies will be allowed to offer their programs to Chicago families, even if they are at other locations.

The Illinois State Board of Education approved the Chicago Public Schools' new screening process, and charging "reasonable rent" to private tutors is allowed under No Child Left Behind. Under new state guidelines, tutoring businesses cannot charge more than $2,000 per student, and any in-school discount must be subtracted from that.

"It is common practice for schools to charge a facilities fee for any outside group," said Becky Watts, board spokeswoman. "It is a way of suggesting fees, but the providers don't have to take that suggestion."

One of the school system's largest private tutoring companies still is trying to sort out how the new policy will affect its program next school year. Catapult Learning, an offshoot of Sylvan Learning Centers, tutored about 5,000 children in Chicago schools this year and charged about $1,250 per child for the 40-hour program, a charge that varied based on attendance.

Jeffrey Cohen, Catapult's president, said that if the company lowers its price to allow for the Chicago discount, then it will most likely cut the number of hours that children spend in the program.

"Either the dollars are going into the instruction bucket or the something-else bucket," Cohen said. "The higher the something-else bucket, the lower the instructional hours."



— Tracy Dell\'Angela
Chicago Tribune


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