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Fresno Unified tutor program proves tough to monitor

Unverified claim:
The [tutoring] provision of No Child Left Behind has benefited millions of students.

By Christina Vance

A tutoring program designed to boost grades of poor students has created a headache for Fresno Unified and other school districts.

It sounds like a great concept. Districts pay professional tutoring companies to teach academically struggling children who are too poor to afford the help.

The provision of No Child Left Behind has benefited millions of students.

But the federally funded program has become a monitoring nightmare for school districts trying to weed out tutoring companies with questionable business and academic standards.

For example, Fresno Unified caught a company last year that submitted more than $200,000 in invalid fees to the district hidden among boxes and boxes of invoices, said Barbara Bengel, the district's director of state and federal programs. She hired extra clerical staff to scrutinize the bills.

"We had quite a few instances of overbilling or double-billing," she said.

The company didn't suffer any consequences for the billing issues. It remains on a state-approved list of tutors, meaning any eligible family can request its services.

It's technically the duty of state officials to monitor the quality of tutoring companies, but that's not happening, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

"This has been a source of frustration to local school districts," he said.

"The states are just evolving their roles in this area. They don't have the staff to oversee these providers."

There's no system of oversight for tutoring companies in California once they earn a spot on the state-approved list, said Jerry Cummings, the California Department of Education program consultant for No Child Left Behind.

State officials are creating a system to gauge whether tutoring programs improve student test scores.

Cummings said the state must collect two years of data before the monitoring system can go into place.

But state education officials have no plans to monitor business practices of the companies. Cummings said that's not their role.

So, whose job is it?

Fresno Unified doesn't get extra money to conduct fiscal oversight of the tutoring companies' invoices, but Bengel said ignoring the duty wasn't an option. The district keeps track of 18 tutoring companies providing services to Fresno Unified students. It spot-checks tutoring sites and calls samplings of parents for feedback.

The law requires districts to pay for tutoring out of federal Title 1 money. If parents don't request the tutoring, the money goes back to individual school sites.

During the 2004-2005 school year, Fresno Unified paid $769,086 in tutoring fees for 809 students.

There were 1,900 students signed up for tutoring this year, Bengel said.

Because schools gain financially when students and their parents decline outside tutoring, Jennings said, the Bush administration and tutoring companies have accused school districts of failing to publicize the availability of the services.

"The companies say districts are not vigorous enough," he said.

Rick Carder of the Grant Joint Union High School District in Sacramento said schools want what's best for students, even if it takes some money out of their budgets.

However, he criticized tutoring companies that offer "excessive incentives" such as free computers to entice students to sign up.

Parents have called his office, saying they wanted whatever tutoring program offered the free technology.

"You do have some providers who go door to door soliciting parents," he said.

There's nothing illegal about such solicitation. Carder said he's heard some online tutoring companies subcontract their services to tutors in other countries, and that's also legal.

He questioned whether that's in the best interest of students.

Similar questions about a tutoring company, Read and Succeed LLC, surfaced during a May 10 Fresno Unified board meeting.

The trustees voted to pay up to $737,760 to the company to tutor 540 students.

But several board members expressed concern over the company's door-to-door soliciting of parent signatures, its offers of free Palm Pilots and its offsite tutoring program that operates through the Palm Pilots or through telephones.

Read and Succeed program director Edrian Walker said in an e-mail that offering tutoring through telephone calls and Palm Pilots keeps students interested and is "research-based and innovative."

It doesn't matter what tutoring businesses and schools consider to be a good program, it's parental opinion that matters right now, Cummings said.

"The providers are able to market themselves," he said. "The bottom line is, it's a parent choice."


— Christina Vance
Fresno Bee


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